APS report shows slashed suspensions and expulsions, but racial divides persist

247

AURORA | Suspensions and expulsion rates have plummeted in Aurora Public Schools because of shifting policies in schools, but disparities between racial groups still persist, according to a district report released Tuesday.

The report, submitted to the APS Board of Education Tuesday night, shows an overall drop in school suspensions and expulsions since 2010.

That year, APS suspended about 5,720 students for disciplinary infractions and referred students to a school administrative office more than 21,300 times. Comparatively, APS suspended about 4,220 students in 2018 and referred only 11,400 students to administrative offices.

Expulsion rates also declined during that time, from more than 250 students in 2010 to 50 last year and only 21 students expelled district-wide this year, with about one month left in the school year.

Charter school disciplinary actions have spiked in recent years, in part because of the increase in APS-approved charter schools.

While there has been improvements in reducing the racial gap among students, the rates of black student suspension and expulsion were disproportionately high last year, even with the overall declines and some progress made.

Black female students, while less than 9 percent of the district’s almost 40,000 student body, were almost 70 percent over-represented in expulsions in 2015 and are still about 20 percent over-represented in suspensions — accounting for about 30 percent of all female suspensions this year. Black males also accounted for about 9 percent of the student body this year but accounted for almost 30 percent of male suspensions in 2015, with the district making progress since then.

The report also noted that Hispanic students — a majority in APS — have disproportionately low expulsion and suspension rates, though the disparity is narrowing.

The racial equity issues in school discipline aren’t unique to APS: black students statewide accounted for about 10 percent of suspensions and expulsions last year despite representing about 5 percent of the total student population.

School board officials spoke with principals of three Aurora schools Tuesday night to learn how the rates have dropped.

A frank conversation ensued about meeting students where they are, racial biases creating disadvantages for black students and challenges to resolve conflicts with low-income and traumatized student populations.

Leaders of Arkansas Elementary, North Middle and Vista PEAK high schools stressed making personal relationships with students, being patient and persistent and not jumping to conclusions in disciplining disobedient students.

At Arkansas Elementary, Principal Lori Petersen said there’s hard work behind the data drops, but still more to be done.

”You can look at the data, and it is just a cold number,” she said. “We want to put that into action for kids.”Petersen said she makes home visits frequently to meet with families on weekends to speak with disobedient students and their parents.

Much of the day-to-day work, she said, involves restorative practices such as giving defiant students their say after conflict, setting up “behavior contracts” and making sure that students with mental health issues are referred to proper staff.

Jason Maclin, principal of Vista PEAK Preparatory high school, said he makes sure to engage with as many students as he can to understand who they are and why they might be acting out.

”Whether you’re the valedictorian or less engaged, I know your name equally,” he said of the students.

The principals also touted professional development for conflict resolution and implicit bias training with staff to make sure disciplinary decisions are made with discretion.

However, the leaders and some school staff said that mental health staff intervening proactively with students is crucial to preventing even the need for disciplinary action.

The principals noted dramatic student-to-staff ratios with mental health staff and counselors in their schools.

At Vista PEAK, Maclin said four counselors work with about 350 students each.APS Director of Mental Health and Counseling Jessica O’Muireadhaigh said last fall there were currently about 150 mental health staff in all 63 schools, before voter approved a $35-million mill-levy override.

That makes a ratio of about one professional to 490 students. APS is investing the bulk of the successful mill levy in mental health staffing and is also considering hiring an external consultant to train teachers in North Middle School.Proposals from teachers included a district-wide restorative practices mandate in all schools and more mental health staff and social workers to work with students before things get out of hand.