When a Colorado bill that would limit suspensions and expulsions among young students met vocal opposition from rural school district leaders in March, a common refrain was that harsh discipline tactics were a Front Range problem, not a rural one.
But a Chalkbeat examination of state data on out-of-school suspensions of students in kindergarten to second grade shows that a key concern of bill advocates — that such methods disproportionately impact boys, especially boys of color — bears out in the state’s rural districts, too.
Last year, the state’s 148 rural districts handed out nearly 500 out-of-school suspensions to early elementary kids, 84 percent of them to boys. Boys in almost every racial and ethnic category were overrepresented in the suspension pool when compared to their overall populations in rural districts.
The disparities were particularly pronounced for black and multiracial boys, who make up just under 2 percent of rural students, followed by white boys, who comprise one-third of rural students.
Supporters of efforts to curb early childhood suspension and expulsion say removing kids from school at a young age can have devastating lifelong consequences — increasing the likelihood of future suspensions and the risk that kids will eventually drop out and end up incarcerated.
House Bill 1210 would curb out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs. It would permit out-of-school suspensions only if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a serious safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.
In general, suspensions would be limited to three days. Expulsions would be prohibited under the bill except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools.
The legislation was crafted after months of work by advocates who sought input from an array of sources, including the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.
At first, the alliance didn’t take an official stand on the bill, but in late March — the same day the House approved the bill — its board voted unanimously to oppose the bill. After that, Republicans in the Senate assigned the bill to a committee that has a track record of killing legislation that leadership opposes. It’s scheduled for a hearing in that committee on Monday.
While not all rural school district leaders oppose the bill, some say the problem the proposed legislation is trying to solve doesn’t apply to them.
Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance said, “It’s not a rural issue … We are not over-expelling or over-suspending our kids.”
National experts, however, say the problem touches districts of all sizes and types.
“Usually whether it’s rural, suburban or urban, we see a wide range of suspension rates, evidence of excess and unjustified disparities,” said Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We see it everywhere.”
Murphy said there’s been no outcry in Colorado’s rural districts from parents or community groups about discipline in the early grades.
Losen said there can be a variety of reasons for that. Parents may not be aware of data that illuminates discipline disparities. They may also be ashamed that their children behaved poorly at school or feel intimidated by school officials.
If parents are undocumented immigrants, Losen said, “the last thing they’re going to do is challenge school officials about anything.”
Taken together, Colorado’s rural districts do have lower suspension rates in the early childhood years than non-rural districts. Colorado’s rural districts educate about 16 percent of the state’s students and hand out 9 percent of the early elementary suspensions, according to 2015-16 data from the Colorado Department of Education.
The numbers, however, vary widely by district.
Dozens of rural districts suspended no kindergarten through second-grade children last year. Dozens of others suspended at least a few, with several handing out more than 20 suspensions. (Expulsions of young children are rare in all types of school districts, with only six statewide last year.)
There are dramatic differences in out-of-school suspension rates even in similarly sized rural districts. For example, the 1,360-student East Otero district in southeastern Colorado handed out 32 suspensions to children in kindergarten through second grade last year, while the 1,320-student Fremont RE-2 district suspended one.
East Otero Superintendent Rick Lovato said part of the reason for the high number of suspensions last year at La Junta Primary School was a new principal and assistant principal who put in place stricter behavior guidelines after a year in which students were being sent to the office constantly for bad behavior.
The vast majority of suspensions — some children received two or three that year — were for violent behavior such as punching, fighting, kicking and biting, Lovato said. This year, so far, kindergarten to second grade suspensions are down to 12.
“Kids and parents have adjusted to the culture and understand what those boundaries are,” said Lovato.
He said the district is working to reduce out-of-school suspensions in all grade levels at all three of its schools.
Lovato said he’s on the fence about House Bill 1210. While he’s adamantly against early elementary expulsions and believes nearly all early childhood suspensions given in East Otero would be allowed under the legislation, he feels districts should get to have the final say in such decisions.
High poverty rates can sometimes drive high suspension rates, but it’s far from universal in Colorado’s rural districts. For example, the 3,600-student Canon City district, where about half of students come from low-income families, gave out 43 early elementary suspensions last year while the nearly 5,000-student Garfield RE-2 district, where the same proportion of students come from low-income families, gave out nine.
Losen said how heavily a building relies on suspension has a lot “to do with the school principal and the culture and history of a school.”
“You tend to see it where resources are really scarce and folks don’t feel they can teach all kids,” he said.
Given the state’s perennial school funding crunch, many rural superintendents argue that limited resources play a part. They say shoestring budgets make it hard to afford counselors, social workers or other staff who could help children with challenging behavior.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that East Otero had suspended 32 children last year. In fact, the district gave out 32 suspensions last year, with some children receiving multiple suspensions. Also, a previous version of the story quoted the Fremont Unified School District director of student support services. That school district is in California. The administrator gamely answered our questions about Colorado legislation, and we quoted him. We meant to contact the Fremont R-2 school district in Florence, in southern Colorado, to ask about the district’s low suspension rates. We regret getting our Fremonts mixed up.