TBMS leads district in suspensions for drugs, violence

Administrators say high rate due to zero tolerance policy
By: Liz Kellar The News Messenger
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Twelve Bridges Middle School opened its doors in August 2006, a pristine new campus with state-of-the-art facilities for Lincoln’s overcrowded middle-school students. But an examination of the state’s data on suspensions reveals a surprising statistic – TBMS led all Western Placer Unified School District sites in 2006-07 for drug- and violence-related suspensions. Twelve Bridges reported 88 suspensions in 2006-07 for violence or drugs – 15.6 percent of an enrollment of 566 students; Glen Edwards Middle School, on the other hand, reported suspending 8.7 percent of the student body for drugs or violence. District administrators could not readily explain the disparity in the suspension rates between the two middle schools. “I don’t know why we had a dramatically different rate,” Twelve Bridges Middle School Principal Stacey Brown said. “We do follow the discipline policy very closely.” The 2007-08 numbers for Twelve Bridges have dropped, but still are higher than Glen Edwards or Lincoln High School. With a fluctuating enrollment of approximately 730, Twelve Bridges Middle School reported a 13 percent rate, compared to 11.5 percent for Glen Edwards and 4.8 percent for Lincoln High. Statewide, schools reported a 6 percent rate of suspensions for drugs or violence in 2006-07, up from 5 percent the previous year. “We want people to pay attention to the numbers, but these kids need intervention,” said Stephanie Papas, from the state Safe & Healthy Kids Program. “Suspensions and expulsions are suppressions. They don’t teach the kids how to behave in a new way.” A closer look at the statistics In 2006-07, Twelve Bridges Middle School reported a total of 223 suspensions with an enrollment of 566 students. Of those 223 suspensions, 88 were for drugs or violence – a 15.6 percent rate. In addition, there were five expulsions. The State Department of Education uses codes for violations leading to suspension for drugs that include possession, sale or under the influence of a controlled substance; offering or negotiating to sell a controlled substance; possession or use of a tobacco product; possession or offering to sell drug paraphernalia; and possession of a controlled substance except for the first offense of not more than one ounce of marijuana. At TBMS in 2006-07, there were nine suspensions and one expulsion for controlled substances and five suspensions for tobacco. Education code violations for violence include causing or threatening to cause physical injury; willful use of force or violence, except in self-defense; possession or furnishing of a firearm, knife, explosive or other dangerous device; committing or attempting to commit robbery or extortion; possession of imitation firearm; sexual assault; hazing; aiding or abetting physical injury; sexual harassment; harassment or threats; terroristic threats; and assault or battery. Of these violations, nine are for more serious offenses and fall within the coding for a persistently dangerous school. If a school is so designated, students in the school must be allowed to transfer to a safe school. To be designated a persistently dangerous school, a school must report a more than 1 percent rate of expulsions for these nine violations for three consecutive years. Of the 74 suspensions for violence-related offenses at TBMS in 2006-07, 27 were for battery, or use of force or violence. Nineteen suspensions were for causing or threatening physical injury. Eleven suspensions were for harassment or threats and six were for sexual harassment. There were four suspensions and three expulsions for more serious offenses, the violations that are counted in the labeling of a persistently dangerous school. There was one expulsion and one suspension for serious physical injury; two suspensions for assault and battery; one expulsion for sexual assault; and one suspension and one expulsion for possession of an explosive device. In 2007-08, Twelve Bridges Middle School reported 95 suspensions and eight expulsions for violence- or drug-related infractions, a 13 percent rate of suspension. As in the previous year, the majority – 40 suspensions and three expulsions – were for willful use of force or violence and 19 were for mutual combat. Another large segment – 27 suspensions and two expulsions — were for threats or intimidation. Only four suspensions were for drugs, and three of those were for tobacco possession. Two incidents fell under the coding for a persistently dangerous school – one suspension and one expulsion for sexual assault. By contrast, at Glen Edwards Middle School, there were 62 suspensions for drugs and violence for 2006-07 with a reported enrollment of 714 students, a 9.2 percent rate. Glen Edwards reported only five drug-related suspensions in 2006-07, one of which was for tobacco products. Of the 57 violence-related suspensions that year, nine were for use of violence and 28 were for causing or threatening to cause physical injury. Six suspensions were for possession of a knife, firearm, explosive device or other dangerous object. In 2007-08, Glen Edwards reported 78 suspensions for violence and two suspensions for drugs. The majority of the suspensions – 55 – were for mutual combat. In previous years, when all middle school students in the district attended Glen Ed-wards, the school reported similar suspension rates. In 2005-06, Glen Edwards reported 100 suspensions for drugs or violence, a 9.7 percent rate. In 2004-05, GEMS reported 97 suspensions for violence and drugs, a suspension rate of 10.2 percent. And at the high school? In 2006-07, Lincoln High School reported 85 suspensions for violence or drugs on a campus with 1,305 enrolled students – a 6.5 percent suspension rate. None were for more serious offenses; the majority of the suspensions were for drugs and tobacco. In 2007-08, the high school reported a 4.8 percent suspension rate. A tale of two middle schools While Twelve Bridges has a much higher rate of suspensions for violence and drugs than does Glen Edwards, the News Messenger found no correlation between those numbers and calls to the Lincoln Police Department. According to Lincoln Police Lt. Paul Shelgren, police officers were called out to Glen Edwards more often than Twelve Bridges, although the department could not provide details on every call. “Not all calls were necessarily during school hours,” Shelgren said. “These include weekend calls to the schools and after hours and many could be unfounded once the officers arrive on scene and look into the matter.” Lincoln Police were called to Glen Edwards 26 times between August 2006 and June 2008 for the following complaints: drugs, assault and battery, tobacco, disturbing the peace, brandishing a weapon or threats. During that same time period, they were called out to Twelve Bridges just 16 times. One explanation for the discrepancy could be a more stringent application of the suspension policy. For example, this year, Twelve Bridges Middle School reported 40 suspensions for battery. But that particular education code is a catch-all for infractions that could be as minor as a pinch or a push, administrators said. “The battery thing is a broad grey area,” Brown said. “It varies. It involves contacting another’s body in an unfriendly way. It’s definitely not a fight or assault.” TBMS reported 27 suspensions this school year, up from 11 the prior year, for threats or intimidation, another grey area. A lot of those were for gang-related graffiti on binders or backpacks, Brown explained, in keeping with the school’s zero tolerance for gangs. “That all falls under creating an intimidating environment,” he said. “This is an incredibly safe school,” Brown insisted. In fact, he said, the school has had “relatively few” fights and only one incident this year involving alcohol. “We did have one incident (last year) with multiple kids, with drugs in the bathroom and on the bus,” he said. “There were four or five kids involved in each of those incidents.” Brown said part of the problem could be attributed to newcomers to the area. “Most of the drug and alcohol incidents and fights are kids who are relatively new to our school and who didn’t stay in the district long,” he said. “Of the kids who were expelled this year, probably half did not start the school year here. They came in, had issues and ended up being expelled. Last year, I think we had a number of kids that flirted with being in gangs. That’s where we get a lot of suspensions – and expulsions as well.” According to Brown, part of the problem is that when students get into trouble at one school, rather than addressing the problem, the parents move them to another district. “We do have a zero tolerance policy and some kids come in from schools that are far more lenient,” he said. “The bottom line, our explanation is we follow the school and the district policy very closely,” he added. “Some things we have absolutely zero tolerance for.” Glen Edwards Middle School Principal Michael Doherty said fluctuations are to be expected from year to year. “I’m going on my 11th year here,” he said. “My experience is that it is reflective of the classes you have. Some years, you have difficult students.” This year, Doherty said, was “a difficult year” at Glen Edwards. Many of the suspensions, he said, were given to a relatively small number of students. “We had 125 kids get suspended 255 times and a lot of these were multiple suspensions,” he said. “Forty kids got suspended three or more times and 22 got suspended five or more times … Most kids go through school without ever getting suspended and some kids are just a handful.” Doherty said it would be difficult to compare the two middle schools. “I don’t think their policies are any stricter than ours and we enforce them the same,” he said. “We have zero tolerance for gang activity.” Like Brown, Doherty said his school has seen an influx of newcomers, some of whom cause issues. “We do notice an influence from the kids coming in from the Bay Area and from Sacramento with a lot of baggage,” he said. “There definitely is a problem.”