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APS suspension numbers surged last year

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The difference between the two totals is striking, enough to make one Albuquerque Public Schools board member gasp.

There were 12,024 total student suspensions in the 2018-19 school year, a 51% increase from the previous year’s recorded total. In 2017-18, Albuquerque Public Schools data showed 7,944 suspensions.

This APS data, which is submitted to the state Public Education Department, reflects districtwide in-school and out-of-school suspensions, inclusive of charter schools.

An increase in drug-related and assault infractions contributed to the rise in suspensions last school year, APS data shows.

But another significant factor in the increase is that, up until last school year, APS wasn’t reporting all suspensions to the state, which the Public Education Department says is required.

Chief Information and Strategy Officer Richard Bowman and spokeswoman Monica Armenta said the district documents suspensions to the state based on a PED list of infractions.

But if a suspension happened at an APS school due to something that wasn’t listed, Bowman said, it wasn’t reported. He added that suspensions needed to fit within the provided categories to be tracked in the state system.

Based on a breakdown from 2018-19, there were more than 3,200 suspensions that were in the previously unreported category.

That means the over 7,000 suspensions from 2017-18 – which school board members described as alarming at the time – isn’t an exhaustive count, nor were documented totals submitted to the state from previous years.

Discipline reporting, including suspensions, is used in a variety of ways at the state and federal levels, including monitoring school safety.

The information helps the governments in designating “persistently dangerous schools” and also serves as a measure of how well students are accessing educational opportunities, PED spokeswoman Nancy Martira said.

And the state department uses the data to see which schools need more restorative practice resources.

Part of the reason APS wasn’t reporting all suspensions to the state was that the district’s interpretation of the infraction “disorderly conduct,” which is listed as a possible cause of a suspension in the PED system.

The district had been using the definition of the misdemeanor, outlined in state statute, to determine if offenses fell within “disorderly conduct.”

But state officials say the “disorderly conduct” category is intended to be used as a more general category for defiant behavior rather than the misdemeanor of the same name.

Armenta said the district was under the impression it’s been reporting everything it needed to.

“APS has always reported the suspension data required,” she said.

‘Needs to be reported’

However, the PED, the overseer of this data, told the Journal that districts should be reporting every suspension.

“Any suspension needs to be reported,” Martira said.

The PED spokeswoman said comprehensive reporting of suspensions is federally mandated in the Every Student Succeeds Act and has been required for years.

Martira also said there are more flexible categories in the system that districts can use for offenses that don’t neatly fit into the provided options.

But Bowman argued that the template that districts are given to report suspensions doesn’t have an exclusive place to put outlier infractions.

While APS had changed its reporting practices a year ago, PED wasn’t aware there was confusion on the reporting. The agency doesn’t know of any other school districts that have experienced these issues, according to Martira.

It wasn’t until the Journal started asking questions about the data that APS’ reporting practices surfaced. The state department wouldn’t comment specifically on APS’ past suspension reports.

Bowman couldn’t say whether the district had reached out and sought clarification on documenting suspensions, but said, in general, reporting staff are in regular contact with PED. He told the Journal that APS is planning to continue reporting the additional infractions in future reports.

Armenta said the district decided to include more suspensions in the report for “information and transparency,” to better understand what’s going on at the school level.

APS didn’t provide the numbers of previously unreported suspensions from years prior to 2018-19.

Drug, assault infractions increase

When 2018-19’s additional suspensions are removed to make the data comparable to the previous year, there’s still a notable increase: about an 11% uptick.

What’s contributing to this is a jump of about 500 drug-related infractions from 2017-18, according to the APS report. In 2018-19 there were 1,665 total drug-related suspensions compared to 1,118 the year before.

There was also an increase of about 300 assault-and-battery-related infractions, compared to 2017-18 with a total of 4,258 suspensions in this category last school year.

Tobacco use and weapons possession infractions were also up.

Bullying accounts for a substantial amount of suspensions, too, but the number is roughly on par with the prior year. (Last school year, there were 1,156 suspensions due to bullying and 1,196 in 2017-18, according to APS data.)

Armenta said teachers and coaches have reported that now more than ever students enter the school system with more severe emotional and mental health behaviors, which she said APS is trying to combat.

Data for the current school year has not been released yet.

Upon hearing about the number of total suspensions in 2018-19, APS board member Peggy Muller-Aragón gasped, taken aback that suspensions have increased for yet another year.

From school years 2016-17 to 2017-18, there was about a 41% increase, according to the data.

“Every time a child is suspended, it is a travesty,” she said, emphasizing out-of-school suspensions.

She said something in APS is “not working” and there needs to be clear totals presented and more conversations about how to fix this.

“I’m very concerned. That’s a lot of students,” she said.

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