discipline disparities

Colorado schools gave out nearly 1,800 suspensions to young students with disabilities last year

PHOTO: Apeloga AB |Getty Images

Getting sent home from school became a constant for Ben Wankel’s second-grade son last fall.

It started simply enough: The cafeteria was too noisy, his pants were scratchy, or he was bored in class. Sometimes, Wankel’s son, who has autism, would flee the room, prompting a teacher or aide to follow. Other times, he’d have a meltdown that devolved into kicking, hitting, or throwing things.

All told, the boy was officially suspended six times last semester from REACH Charter School, a 3-year-old Denver school that aims to educate students with disabilities alongside their nondisabled peers.

The second-grader’s experience with discipline is a familiar story for young children with disabilities. A Chalkbeat analysis shows that last year among Colorado students in kindergarten through second grade, nearly one-third of 6,080 out-of-school suspensions were meted out to special education students — even though they make up just 9 percent of K-2 enrollment.

Amid the continuing national debate over the fairness, effectiveness, and risks of suspension, the rate stands out to experts.

“I’m very disturbed by it,” said Phil Strain, a professor of early-childhood special education at the University of Colorado Denver. “I think that any time that there is a disproportionality ratio of [that] size … it’s beyond chance, beyond random, beyond accident.”

The disparities in suspension rates exist nationwide for special education students — and students of color — and helped drive a 2014 Obama-era directive urging states to reduce the use of such discipline tactics. While that guidance is now under review by the Trump administration, many school districts have taken bold steps amidst growing awareness that suspensions increase the likelihood students will repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.

Denver Public Schools, which has spearheaded significant discipline reforms in recent years and has seen its overall K-2 suspension rate drop, gave out one-third of its 445 K-2 suspensions to young students with disabilities last year.

The numbers are even more startling in other districts. Harrison, a 12,000-student Colorado Springs-based district, gave out 56 percent of its 324 K-2 suspensions to special education students last year.

Suspension Disparities for Students with Disabilities in 2016-17

The seven districts below all give out at least 50 percent of kindergarten through second grade suspensions to students with disabilities last year.

Note: This chart is based on data showing the number of K-2 suspension given out by school districts, not the number of individual students suspended.

Boulder Valley, a 31,000-student district, gave out nearly 70 percent of its 55 K-2 suspensions to special education students last year.

Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district with 86,000 students, gave half of its 713 K-2 suspensions to special education students last year.

These findings come from a Chalkbeat analysis of K-2 out-of-school suspension data during the 2016-17 school year. Chalkbeat obtained the district- and state-level data, which was disaggregated by special education status, from the Colorado Department of Education through a public records request.

Many school district leaders say suspending a student is a last resort, considered only in cases of extreme classroom disruption or when the safety of staff or students is at stake.

“It’s not something we want to do,” said Kevin Carroll, chief student success officer in the Jeffco district. When it does happen he said the rationale is, “We need to take a break here for a little bit and regroup.”

Leaders in Harrison, Boulder Valley, Jeffco, and Denver all say they have efforts underway to prevent suspensions of young students, including those with disabilities.

Andre Spencer, superintendent of the Harrison district until he abruptly resigned Monday, called the suspension disparities for special education students there “alarming.”

“It’s not something we’re proud to see,” he said last week. “We don’t want parents, kids, anybody to perceive that we are a district that will send any particular population [home].”

Act of desperation

One of the most fundamental problems with suspensions is that they don’t fix bad behavior. Kids may learn that misbehaving gets them a day off, but there’s no evidence that getting sent home teaches kids how to control their tempers or solve problems productively.

“No one has ever demonstrated that suspension or expulsion treats the problem,” Strain said. “I’ve come to see suspension and expulsion as acts of desperation. It’s adults giving up.”

And when kids with disabilities are sent home, he said there’s a big impact: Students who need instruction the most lose out on learning.

Such discipline takes a social toll, too.

For the second-grader at REACH, who was 7 at the time he attended, the six suspensions were part of a string of other discipline problems resulting in three different school placements this year and two months spent at home. While the boy is now doing well at Denver Green School, Wankel laments his son’s lost social connections, especially because making friends can be hard for children with autism.

“He was very sad about losing the friendships,” after leaving REACH, Wankel said. “I don’t want his friendships to feel temporary or disposable.”

Finally, there’s the problem suspensions create for parents, requiring them to leave jobs early or miss work while they stay home with their children. Wankel said he and his partner, Mark Schaffer, were lucky that one of them was always available to handle school crises and stay home with their son.

Too often, “people can’t afford this,” he said. “We are not just penalizing the kids and their educations by pulling them out of school, we’re penalizing the parents,” he said.

Battling extreme behavior

People on all sides of the discipline debate say schools often lack the resources they need — both specialized training and extra staff — to prevent and handle children’s most extreme behaviors. Suspensions can seem like the only way to restore calm and get the class back on track when a child becomes violent, threatening, or disruptive.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, which serves people with disabilities, said the sentiment was common during last year’s unsuccessful push for statewide legislation limiting preschool-through second-grade suspensions.

“We don’t have enough in our toolbox. You need to give us something,” she recalled opponents saying.

Suspension Disparities for Students with Disabilities by District Type in 2016-17

This chart shows that young students with disabilities statewide, and in certain kinds of districts, receive a disproportionate share of out-of-school suspensions. Small rural districts have less than 1,000 students and rural districts have less than 6,500 students.

Note: This chart is based on data showing the number of K-2 suspension given out by school districts, not the number of individual students suspended.

The early-childhood suspension bill died last year largely because of opposition from rural school district leaders. But Bisceglia hopes the bill will resurface next year, along with a heightened awareness among rural leaders that suspensions disproportionately affect students with disabilities.

“They feel as though the discipline is really an urban issue, but disability touches every community,” she said.

Experts on school discipline say the key to helping kids with extreme behaviors is understanding what triggers the behavior and what it’s meant to communicate. Then the job becomes reducing triggers, de-escalating things when tempers flare, and teaching kids acceptable replacement behaviors.

A trigger for Wankel’s son came during an art class where students were asked to draw objects in both the foreground and background. The boy did a cursory drawing of a mountain and a bunny, then waited with increasing frustration, and eventually walked out of the room, which spurred a chase and an effort to restrain him. What he needed in that moment — and might have prevented the rest of the episode — Wankel said, was someone to cheer his initial effort and nudge him to add even more to the picture.

Moira Coogan, the principal of REACH, said she couldn’t comment on the boy’s case because of federal privacy mandates. However, generally speaking, she noted that being a small 129-student school can make it difficult to have enough staff to handle things when a child’s challenging behavior escalates. The school does have the option to reach out to the school district for additional help, and that has been provided at times, she said.

Strain, of the University of Colorado Denver, said using unproven or inconsistent approaches is one of the biggest problems he sees when school staff struggle to manage challenging behavior.

“Often people have tried things,” he said. “But it’s almost never true that they [used] an evidence-based strategy with fidelity in the first place.”

A related problem, he said, is when not all staff members who interact with a challenging student have appropriate training. So perhaps the lead teacher is well-equipped to head off disruptive outbursts, but the part-time paraprofessional is not.

Some parents say large class sizes, aggressive restraint practices, and calls to district security staff or even 911 also contribute to behavior that spirals out of control.

District initiatives

Even though early childhood suspension legislation failed last year, a number of Colorado districts have recently taken their own steps to address the issue.

In Jeffco, leaders have undertaken several efforts this school year to reduce kindergarten through third grade suspensions. These include training on restorative practices, a checklist to help principals who are considering a suspension to first exhaust other options, and a requirement that principals discuss a possible K-3 suspension with a district administrator before administering it.

Based on K-2 suspension numbers pulled in March, Jeffco is on track to have about 400 suspensions in those grade levels this year, down from 713 last year. District officials said it won’t be clear till the final end-of-year numbers come in, whether or not students with disabilities received a disproportionate number of suspensions.

Spencer, the Harrison superintendent until this week, said a district committee is in the process of creating an action plan to help reduce student discipline incidents. Individual schools will soon draft their own action plans with complementary goals. The district has also hired a full-time behavior analyst to give staff more support in handling challenging behavior next year.

Boulder Valley district leaders said next year they are adding 10 elementary counselors and will use a new classroom management program intended to help students with more extreme behaviors.

Officials there noted that the average number of suspensions given to each special education student who received the punishment has gone down over the last three years. In 2014-15, K-2 special educations students were suspended 2.6 times on average. Last year, it was 2.1.

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, this year instituted a policy limiting suspensions in kindergarten through third grade. Officials there say they’ve also provided training on de-escalation techniques to early childhood educators and established an advisory committee to support schools around the new discipline policy.

Not all Colorado districts disproportionately suspend students with disabilities, according to state data. Of the 30 largest districts, Falcon, Academy 20, and Pueblo 70 were among those without suspension disparities for that population.

Chalkbeat calculations show that another four districts — Douglas County, Thompson, Fountain, and Mapleton — also fall into that category. All gave four or fewer suspensions to K-2 special education students last year, below the threshold for disproportionality.

Sent home, but not suspended

Although data compiled by the Colorado education department provide a useful snapshot of suspension use in schools, it’s important to remember the data is reported by districts and not independently verified by the state.

Some advocates worry that suspensions are vastly under-reported, especially as the spotlight on harsh school discipline tactics has grown brighter in recent years.

“You can be absolutely sure that the suspensions you’re seeing are definitely underreported,” said Rosemarie Allen, president and CEO of the Institute for Racial Equity and Excellence. “We’re not capturing soft suspensions at all.”

Those soft or unofficial suspensions include situations where parents are asked to pick up their child early from school or keep them home for a day because of problem behavior.

Wankel, the father of the second-grader, was often asked to pick up his son early from REACH. The same thing had happened sometimes when the boy previously attended the district-run Bill Roberts K-8 School.

The usual explanation: “He’s having a rough day, you need to come pick him up,” Wankel said.

At REACH, “He was being sent home and nobody wanted to call it a suspension,” said Wankel. “That’s why we started saying, ‘Is this a suspension? We want to know.’”

In part, Wankel wanted an accurate accounting of his son’s suspensions because special protections kick in for special education students once they’ve been removed from school for 10 days or more. But also, as the number ratcheted up, he hoped district officials would take notice and send additional support to the charter school.

Coogan, the REACH principal, said the school uses both suspensions and what she called “removals” only in the most serious incidents when a child jeopardizes the safety of himself or others. She said removals, which are sometimes part of a crisis plan or behavior plan within the student’s federally-mandated special education plan, occur when a child is sent home by the school. Like suspensions, she said removals count toward the 10-day trigger and are documented by the school. She said REACH follows the Denver district’s discipline policies and procedures.

Asked how a suspension is defined, Denver district officials said via email, “When a school removes a student from instruction to home, that is a suspension.”

But not every parent wants an official tally of suspensions on a child’s record.

Khafilah Malik, the mother of a kindergartener with autism, anxiety, and Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, said she was frequently asked to pick up her son early from school last fall when he attended Odyssey School of Denver. Bisceglia, who served as an advocate for Malik and her son, corroborated this account.

Malik chose Odyssey, an expeditionary learning-themed charter school, because her son loves science and she thought the model would suit him. But sometimes the 5-year-old would have meltdowns — during fire drills, or when a teacher changed routine directions, or when he couldn’t sit with a favored classmate. He’d run, scream, hit, throw papers, or knock over chairs.

“They never really used the ‘s’ word,” said Malik. “They said, ‘We just don’t have the support staff to meet your son’s needs.’”

Malik said she would have resisted if any of those early pick-ups had been counted as suspensions on his permanent record.

“I did not want my son to be labeled,” she said, especially because she already worried that he was being painted “as this angry, aggressive African-American male child.”

Odyssey executive director Marnie Cooke said via email that the account of Malik being asked to repeatedly pick up her son early and the explanation about a lack of support staff is inaccurate, but said she could not provide details because of privacy rules. She said the school is fully staffed to meet students’ needs.

Cooke also noted that the school’s special education population has tripled in five years and parents of students with disabilities are largely satisfied with their children’s experience at the school.

After his time at Odyssey, Malik’s son switched to a district-run school for a month and then to Tennyson Center for Children, which has specialized programming for children with autism. His mother said Denver Public Schools covers tuition at the center and the youngster is doing well there in a class of six children.

Malik said for now, he’s happy and learning to calm down quickly when things don’t go his way.

“They get it,” she said. “When he’s escalated, they have to debrief with him. He has to connect.”

Look up your district’s 2016-17 overall K-2 suspension rate in the chart below.

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Threes please

As 4-year-old preschool programs become the norm, Denver looks to reach 3-year-olds next

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

The Denver Preschool Program, most well-known for providing millions of dollars to help the families of 4-year-olds pay for preschool, is expanding its scope.

Starting this month, the nonprofit will put a share of its funding from a citywide sales tax toward improving preschool classrooms for 3-year-olds — something it has long done in 4-year-old classrooms. Those improvements could take the form of teacher training or coaching, teacher scholarships for educational programs, or new blocks and playground equipment.

The $700,000 initiative pales in comparison to the $15 million that the Denver Preschool Program will spend on tuition assistance for the city’s 4-year-olds this year. Still, it’s another sign of growing recognition that investments in younger children help amplify the benefits of widespread and politically popular 4-year-old prekindergarten programs.

The push to serve more 3-year-olds can be seen around the state and nation. Colorado’s two largest school districts — Denver and Jeffco — both plan to add new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if tax measures for education pass in November.

Last year, New York City school leaders began phasing in free universal preschool for the city’s 3-year-olds, an expansion of the city’s ambitious Pre-K for All program, which served about 70,000 4-year-olds in 2017-18. In 2008, Washington, D.C., passed a major preschool overhaul law, which helped make it one of the few places in the country where a large majority of 3-year-olds attend free preschool.

Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, said when city voters first passed a sales tax in 2006 to fund the program, the ballot language specifically earmarked the proceeds for 4-year-olds. But in 2014, when voters approved a 10-year extension of the sales tax, they also OK’d language that allowed spending on 3-year-olds.

The expanded age range fit with the shifting national policy conversation at the time, which increasingly emphasized the importance of starting with children younger than 4, said Landrum.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

That’s part of the reason the Denver Preschool Program will focus its new 3-year-old funding on boosting quality.

“It’s such a logical next step when you can see the gains 4-year-olds can make in that one year of high-quality preschool,” said Landrum. “It just makes sense.”

The improvement efforts will focus on the preschool classrooms of about 3,400 Denver 3-year-olds.

Unlike the city’s 4-year-olds, those 3-year-olds will not get tuition help from the Denver Preschool Program. There’s not enough money for that, said Landrum.

In Colorado, a fraction of 3-year-olds attend publicly funded preschool through Head Start or the Colorado Preschool Program, a statewide program that pays for preschool for young children with certain risk factors. Some 3-year-olds also qualify for free preschool because they have disabilities.

Denver district officials say they hope to add 500 new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if the statewide ballot measure, Amendment 73, passes in November. Right now, there are long waitlists for that age group.

In Jeffco, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds together in the same classrooms, expansion plans also hinge on the outcome of November’s election. A proposed district bond measure would help renovate 70 classrooms for the preschool set, for a total of about 1,100 additional seats. Currently, the district serves about 3,500 preschoolers — about half of them 3-year olds.

And if Amendment 73 or the district’s mill levy override  — or both — pass, district officials say it would allow them to convert more half-day preschool slots to full-day slots, hike teacher pay, and improve the qualifications of early childhood staff.