this is your brain

Drug incidents in schools rise, but uneven state data doesn’t reflect legal marijuana factor

The first months of legal recreational marijuana in Colorado saw a jump in drug policy violations in the state’s public schools, a Rocky Mountain PBS I-News analysis of Department of Education data has found.

Alarmingly, the biggest spike in violations came in the state’s middle schools, according to the analysis. The first months of legal recreational marijuana coincided with the winter and spring of the 2013-14 school year.

“Middle schoolers are most vulnerable to being confused about marijuana,” said Dr. Christian Thurstone, attending physician for the Denver Health Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment program. “They think, ‘Well, it’s legal so it must not be a problem.’”

In many cases, marijuana is simply more available to younger teens, officials say.

“We have seen parents come in and say, ‘Oh that’s mine, they just took it out of my room,’ and that sort of thing,” said school resource officer Judy Lutkin of the Aurora Police Department. “Parents have it in their houses more often, and the kids just can take it from home.”

The hike in drug violations came as overall suspensions, expulsions and referrals to police for other transgressions decreased between the year of legalization and the previous academic year, 2012-13.

The I-News analysis found:

  • Middle schools had the highest percentage increase in drug violations, rising 24 percent in the school year ending last spring. This lead to a decade high of 951 drug incidents in middle schools.
  • Drug incidents reported by all public schools hit a decade high last school year, rising 7.4 percent to 5,377 incidents. There are more drug violations in high schools, but those numbers stayed flat during the first year of legalization.
  • Statewide, since medical marijuana stores opened widely in 2010, drug incidents are the only major category of conduct violations that rose in Colorado school districts, according to the data.

Still, it’s hard to discern the specific types of drugs involved in the increased number of reports as statewide policies to measure and extrapolate teen use of marijuana and other drugs are often inconsistent and unreliable.

In fact, the data collected by the Colorado Department of Education does not identify any specific drugs. Instead, this data lumps prescription drugs, heroin, cocaine and marijuana all into the same category of disciplinary cases.

“I would say that at any given time, any day of the week, there are probably about 10 percent of kids in the high school that are under the influence of something,” said school resource officer Susan Condreay of the Aurora Police Department.

Marijuana is second only to alcohol in teen substance abuse, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, an annual survey from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.

“Alcohol is by far and away the most used substance by middle schoolers, then it goes down for marijuana and tobacco is just below that,” said Dr. Thurstone. “Prescription drug use is number four, and it’s increasing, so that’s been an alarming increase, as well, that we need to pay attention to.”

The Department of Education wants to address the lack of specificity in its drug reporting, according to Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Littleton. She said she was asked to carry a bill that would require schools to be more transparent with their drug reporting, particularly about marijuana.

“We are still continuing with stakeholder meetings, but I am hoping to have a bill drafted and ready to go (this month),” Rep. Lawrence said. “If we don’t start now, we are not going to have a baseline to compare to in the future.”

She hopes that potential new requirements will not only show how legal marijuana is impacting students, but also provide more data on other potentially harmful drugs.

“Colorado ranks I think second in prescription drug abuse in the country and that is something we need to keep a constant eye on,” Lawrence said. “And I think starting to monitor the marijuana use is very important so we need to make sure that we are collecting the best data we can.”

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health ranked Colorado as the second worst state in the country for prescription drug abuse in 2013. That year, 598 people of all ages in the state died from unintentional drug poisoning, according to the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health. That’s nearly four times the number of deaths that were caused by drunk driving during the same period.

Still, marijuana remains a top priority for school resource officers and treatment providers, especially in middle schools.

Denver Public Schools hired a district substance abuse treatment coordinator this school year, who will focus greater attention on middle schools.

“According to our data, middle schools are where most people begin to experiment,” said John Simmons, DPS executive director of student services. “It’s much easier to stop someone from using in the first place than it is to stop it once it’s started.”

The Denver district saw a 7 percent increase in drug incidents, from 452 in 2012-13 to 482 in the 2013-14 year. Simmons says that marijuana accounts for almost every drug incident.

But legalization supporters point out that kids aren’t coming in and buying from stores, and packages that leave the stores do not market to children.

“We have gone above and beyond to make sure that we are not marketing to children,” said Meg Sanders, owner of MiNDFUL, a cannabis company that operates in several cities in Colorado. “We feel it’s our responsibility as a responsible business to card not just once but twice for any recreational customer, and medical patients have to show several documents before they can purchase marijuana.”

Some say that legalization might help provide resources for addressing underage consumption of marijuana using tax revenue generated through legal sales.

“The fact is that we had a significant number using marijuana then and now (before and after legalization),” Simmons said of public schools in Denver. “We are hopeful that these changes will provide more resources.”

The Colorado legislature set aside $2.5 million in grants for schools from marijuana tax revenue. As of November 2014, the Department of Education had awarded $975,000 to 11 districts to hire more health professionals to help address student behavior regarding marijuana, sometimes as an alternative to traditional punishment like expulsion or suspension.

But alternative or non-punitive methods currently dealing with drug incidents by districts or individual schools are not tracked by state data.

“We have a lot of different things that we will do for kids who have gotten involved in drug incidents in school,” said Kenlyn Newman, the student engagement initiatives director for Adams 12 Five Star School District. She says that different behaviors require different responses and schools will try to intervene and work with parents to address inappropriate behaviors.

Adams 12 schools are in five different municipalities, and each of those schools have different agreements with the local government. This means that police involvement can vary from school to school, with similar incidents being reported differently to the state. But the Department of Education has no means to measure these differences in reporting.

“There is no manpower to audit the data; we can’t go back to the districts to check what they say,” said Annette Severson from the Colorado Department of Education. “We just have to trust that what they report to us is accurate and then they have to sign off and say that it is accurate.”

Even as Colorado has been launched into the national spotlight as the first state to legalize and commercialize the sale of marijuana for adult use, the state has yet to begin collecting comprehensive and consistent data to describe how it is impacting Colorado’s teens.

“I was against legalization,” said Doris Cooper, while waiting to pick up her 7th grade granddaughter from North Middle School in Aurora. “If you legalize it, you know it’s just going to make them want to use it that much more, that’s what I figure.”

Chalkbeat Colorado brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Learn more at rmpbs.org/news. Contact Katie Kuntz at [email protected] I-News reporter Burt Hubbard contributed to this story.

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”

 



Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”