DENVER – A group advocating for fair treatment of students of color in Colorado says a new law is helping make that happen, but Latino, African-American and Native American students are still much more likely to get in trouble than their white peers.
The group called Padres & Jovenes Unidos (Parents & Youth United) studied discipline reports from all 179 Colorado public school districts. According to the group's analysis, Colorado districts reduced out-of-school suspensions by 10 percent, and expulsions by 25 percent during the 2012-2013 school year.
But there is still a marked difference between the suspension rates of white students compared to Latino, Native American and African-American students. White students are suspended at a rate of 4.5 per 100 students, Latino students at a rate of 8.6 per 100, Native American students at a rate of 10.4 per 100 and black students at a rate of 17.3 per 100, almost four times as often as white students.
"Behavior is viewed differently for students of color," according to Daniel Kim from Padres & Jovenas Unidos in an interview with 9NEWS.
For instance, Kim describes a common problem in schools: A student with a learning disability becomes frustrated and acts out, perhaps throwing a desk or arguing with a teacher. But the discipline for such behavior will vary based on the student's race. "Basically, the black student in that situation will be suspended or expelled at a much higher rate," Kim told 9NEWS.
In 2012 the Colorado legislature passed the Smart School Discipline Law. This report is the first checkup on how school districts have responded to the law.
While the study shows improvement, "We were starting from a place where there are very sharp inequities," according to Jim Freeman, who lives in Denver but studies the national issue of school discipline equality and worked with Padres & Jovenes Unidos on the study. "Generally speaking, we need to be more consistent in how we're responding to disciplinary incidents," Freeman told 9NEWS. "We can't be responding to disciplinary incidents in one school with a call to police, where in a different school it results in just a call home to parents."
Freeman is a member of President Obama's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The Obama Administration is proposing specific guidelines to reduce the gaps between discipline for students of different races, although some critics like CNN contributor Ruben Navarrette calls this plan "overkill."
According to the study by Padres & Jovenes Unidos, the school district in Trinidad has the highest number of suspensions per 100 students (20.7) while the Adams County 14 district has the highest number of them in the Denver metro area (20.6).
Both Kim and Freeman applaud efforts by Denver Public Schools (DPS) for re-writing its code of conduct and looking for different ways to use discipline more effectively. Freeman describes it as using discipline as a learning tool, not a punishment, saying schools and districts need to "move to where we have a discipline that teaches, as opposed to a discipline where we're going to push you away from school."
Advocates on the issue of fair treatment of students of color say "zero tolerance" policies designed to protect students and staff from dangerous students have gone too far and result in unfair treatment, particularly of students of color.
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