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Based on a recent study that examined discipline incidents for kindergarten through third-grade students, Jefferson County Public Schools will be looking at alternative ways to discipline early learners.
“From a discipline standpoint, there’s no evidence that exclusionary practices work to change behavior,” said Jen Gallegos, manager of student discipline for Jeffco Schools. “If we teach math and art, we also need to teach behavior. If exclusionary practices don’t teach that, we need to change it.”
A report conducted by the Colorado Department of Education revealed that during the 2015-16 school year, Jeffco Public Schools handed out more suspensions to young students than any other Colorado district.
The 86,000-student district, Colorado’s second largest, gave nearly 700 out-of-school suspensions to kindergarten through second-grade students in 2015-16, an average of four every school day.
Neighboring Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district at 91,000 students, handed out 500 suspensions in those grade levels during the same period. And Douglas County, the state’s third largest district, gave out just 77.
Based on the data, Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass instructed staff to research early learning discipline further, something that hasn’t been done in Jeffco before.
That study, released on Aug. 24, found that in the 2015-16 school year, 1,401 discipline incidents occurred involving 717 students in kindergarten through third grade, a discipline rate of 3 percent of the population in those grade levels. Those incidents increase from kindergarten through third grade and almost all incidents were resolved with in-school suspension (31 percent) or out-of-school suspension (69 percent.) Three incidents resulted in student expulsion and two resulted in a police referral.
Disparity in certain populations
Of the 95 elementary schools included in the study, 84 were neighborhood schools, two were option schools and nine were charter schools.
The data concluded that boys were overrepresented with 86 percent of discipline incidents coming from them.
The gender discrepancy is not unique to Jeffco or to early learners, according to Dr. Heather MacGillivary, director of assessment and research for Jeffco Schools.
“We see more boys having discipline incidents nationally across the country,” MacGillivary said. “We also see similar portions in the upper grades.”
Other groups that were found to be overrepresented district-wide were students eligible for free and reduced lunch, accounting for more than two-thirds of students with discipline incidents; and students with individualized education plans, accounting for 30 percent.
This, MacGillivary said, also aligns with national research, although the research dedicated to early learners is sparse.
“There’s a lot of claims and propositions being made across the country as to why this is,” MacGillivary said. “It’s likely a combination of stress — kids in poverty have a lot of stressors.”
Gallegos also pointed out that students in the special education population often carry high frustration levels and can be more challenged than the average kid.
The primary disability for students with discipline incidents was serious emotional disabilities.
While students with disabilities are considered overrepresented based on the school population, 70 percent of students with discipline incidents had no disability recorded.
“I think a big message is, while we see disproportionality it was spread across many schools,” MacGillivary said. “When you’re suspending one kid on an IEP or in poverty in many schools across the district, that’s when we see the disproportionality.”
The most recorded incident type was detrimental behavior, which Gallegos described as “something that causes significant disruption to the classroom setting or is a safety issue.”
There was no ethnic disparity in the K-3 report, with 58.3 percent of students identifying as white.
Searching for alternatives
Moving into this year, the district will be looking at alternatives to suspension.
The standardized suspension checklist will give school administrators a pause in the process to look at alternatives to suspensions, Gallegos said. The checklist was rolled out for the 2017-18 school year.
Alternative examples include restorative practices such as social and emotional learning interventions and positive behavior interventions and supports.
“That’s been a really good intervention tool to build culture and repair the harm and damage caused,” said Gallegos, adding that the goal is to keep students from missing instruction.
Data from the 2016-17 school year will be available this fall and MacGillivary said Jeffco will once again examine the district.
In the forward letter of the study, Glass wrote, “We will monitor our rates of K-3 suspensions and expulsions for this coming school year to determine if our solutions have had the desired impact of reducing these relatively harsh discipline practices for young students.”
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