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 katiekuntz@rmpbs.org. I-News reporter Burt Hubbard contributed to this story.

Movers & shakers

Former education leaders spearhead new Memphis group to zero in on poverty

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Klondike-Smokey City is the first Memphis neighborhood targeted by Whole Child Strategies to coordinate the fight against poverty.

In a “big small town” like Memphis, neighborhoods are a source of pride and strength for residents in one of the poorest cities in America.

Natalie McKinney

Now, a new Memphis nonprofit organization is seeking to address poverty by coordinating the work of neighborhood schools, businesses, churches, and community groups.

Natalie McKinney is executive director of Whole Child Strategies, created last fall to help neighborhood and community leaders chart their own paths for decreasing poverty, which also would increase student achievement.

“There’s a lot of people ‘collaborating’ but not a lot of coordination toward a shared goal,” said McKinney, a former policy director for Shelby County Schools.

McKinney doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” on community development. However, she does want to provide logistical resources for analyzing data, facilitating meetings, and coordinating public advocacy for impoverished Memphis neighborhoods through existing or emerging neighborhood councils.

“Poverty looks different in different areas,” she said, citing varying levels of parent education, transportation, jobs and wages, and access to mental health services. “When we get down and figure out what is really going on and really dealing with the root cause for that particular community, that’s the work that the neighborhood council is doing.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer

Her team includes Luther Mercer, former Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, and Rychetta Watkins, who recently led the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South, along with Courtney Thomas, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Tenice Hardaway.

Whole Child Strategies is supported by an anonymous donor and also plans to raise more funds, according to McKinney.

The first neighborhood to receive a grant from the nonprofit is Klondike-Smokey City, which includes a mix of schools run by both Shelby County Schools and Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The group is drilling down to find out why students in those schools are missing school days, which will include a look at student suspensions.

At the community level, Whole Child Strategies has canvassed Agape Child & Family Services, Communities in Schools, City Year, Family Safety Center, Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, and Seeding Success for ideas to increase transportation, reduce crime, and provide more mental health services.

For example, Family Safety Center, which serves domestic abuse survivors, now has a presence in schools in the Klondike-Smokey City community. McKinney said that’s the kind of coordination she hopes Whole Child Strategies can foster.

One need that already is apparent is for a community-wide calendar so that meetings do not overlap and organizations can strategize together, said Quincey Morris, executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

“I think like any new thing, you have to crawl first,” Morris said. “And I think the more that the community is informed about the whole child strategy, the more that we involve parents and community residents, I think it will grow.”

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.