Las Vegas Sun

August 26, 2019

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CCSD’s balancing act: Preventing school violence while protecting student equality

From the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, to the day-to-day disturbances that unfold in classrooms, incidences of violence on school campuses have captured national headlines.

The Clark County School District is not immune. In the past four years, the district has seen an increase in the number of incidents resulting in suspension or expulsion for peer-to-peer violence, peer-to-staff violence and weapons brought on campus, according to Nevada Report Card data.

While some of the uptick in reports can be attributed to changes in data collection methods, the local numbers reflect those of the nation’s, said Assistant Superintendent Tammy Malich.

“The trend is not just in Clark County, it’s across the country. We’re seeing youth become more defiant to authority,” added CCSD Police Captain Ken Young. “When we talk to other cities, they’re also seeing an increase in violence; they’re seeing an increase in defiant youth behavior. It’s not just here.”

Shortly after the Parkland shooting last month, two CCSD students—one high school and one middle school—were arrested for allegedly making terrorist threats. Earlier this month, CCSD police responded to two incidents of high school students bringing guns onto their campuses.

As of the time of publication, there were 17 incidences of guns reported on CCSD campuses since July, already matching last year’s numbers, said Young.

CCSD police Lt. Roberto Morales said during a press briefing, “Our focus is deterrence. Our focus is a positive, secure, safe learning environment.”

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As CCSD navigates school safety, it’s also monitoring the overrepresentation of students of color who are suspended or expelled at higher rates than their peers.

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CCSD violent incidences resulting in suspension or expulsion and CCSD expulsion rate by ethnicity

According to the 2016 Indicators of School Crime and Safety report by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice, a higher percentage of black students received out-of-school suspensions during the 2011–12 academic year than any other racial or ethnic group.

That trend holds true in Clark County as well.

“That’s something we’ve been working on for the past three years—the disproportionality or overrepresentation of youth of color with removal-kind of discipline,” said Malich. “We worked on limiting removals for discretionary reasons, [things like] expulsion and behavior.”

Two methods of removal discipline in CCSD are suspension and expulsion.

“Schools have a lot of flexibility and latitude over suspensions—situations where schools are removing kids for a short-term basis,” Malich said. “The next level of discipline is expulsion.”

“Expulsions are generally mandatory, either because statute (Nevada state law) says you will expel for this ... or we have a district regulation that says you would expel for this,” she said.

However, suspensions are generally used for two reasons, either as a progressive consequence or as a tool that allows schools to conduct an investigation. CCSD principals have latitude to decide when to place a student on suspension, or when to show leniency by sending students to on-campus programs aimed to address behavioral changes.

Eldorado High School Principal David Wilson explained the nuances that officials must navigate when disciplining students: A student on Wilson’s campus possessed multiple half-ounce bags of marijuana with intent to sell. By regulation, the student had to be expelled. However, if the student possessed less than an ounce of marijuana for personal use, Wilson could have suspended the student or resorted to other forms of discipline.

“Our goal over the past couple years has been working with principals to put other measures in place so we’re not just removing kids and bringing them back, because ultimately, that’s not going to change behavior,” Malich said. “That just moves behavior off the campus to the neighborhood or to another school.”

To address the disproportionality in expulsions, CCSD has implemented steps to help give principals options, such as social workers in schools, positive behavioral intervention and support, and social and emotional learning curriculum to help change behavior.

“If we can change the behavior, that’s the preference, so we’re not just passing a problem around. We’re actually getting at the root of the problem and attempting to remedy it,” she said.

The district is collaborating with schools to help track data to see if there are disproportionate numbers in suspension policies.

And in reaction to the Parkland shooting, Gov. Brian Sandoval announced in mid-March the creation of an advisory group, which will discuss funding for social workers, behavioral health experts and more resources for training students and staff.

While it’s unclear what has caused the rising tide of school violence, some CCSD employees hypothesize that the change in expulsion policy increased the number of violent incidents on campus because students who would normally be expelled remain on site. However, other CCSD employees believe that the expulsion policy helps address the disproportionate number of youth of color being expelled at higher rates and that the violence on campus is a symptom of larger societal problems.

“There’s violence that’s coming from home, from the communities, things that they see in their video games, things they see in the movies that they watch. A lot of times, kids are desensitized to violence; it becomes the norm because they see so much of it,” Young said.

The district, like the nation, is struggling to bandage the violence that spills onto campus without wounding students’ rights to education and their civil liberties.

Young himself is unsure why there’s been an increase, but he does believe it stems from outside school grounds and is spreading to CCSD’s hallways.

“I wish I knew. We could go on tour and spread it across the country, I wish I had an answer to that,” Young said. “They are our future citizens, they’re our future business owners, our future leaders. It’s time now that everybody sets a good example for them.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.