Iowa sees gains and losses in school safety

Disciplinary action a mixed bag for Iowa classrooms

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DES MOINES — Iowa schools are a mix of good and bad when it comes to unruly student behavior, with weapons-related expulsions at a low level, but more students being removed for drug-related violations.

While educators say classrooms in the state’s 346 K-12 public school districts generally are safe environments conducive to learning, the total number of in-school and out-of-school suspensions hovers around the 70,000 level annually for reasons that include disruptive behavior, fighting and violent actions, bringing a weapon on school grounds or possession of illicit drugs, alcohol or tobacco.

In 2011-12 — the school year for which the Iowa Department of Education has its latest data — school expulsions most often were ordered for students as a result of drug-related incidents. Overall, 98 students were removed from their regular classroom settings because of drug possession out of 159 expulsions for that year — roughly double the number in 2004-05 and continuing an upward march in the yearly reports from school districts.

“I know that’s going up because I’ve been hearing about it more than I have in the past,” said Mary Gannon, an official with the Iowa Association of School Boards.

Positive numbers

On the positive side, the number of students expelled for bringing a weapon to school dropped to 17 during the 2011-12 school year, down significantly from the 64 incidents in 1997-98. However, both the in-school and out-of-school suspensions related to weapons — which could include a range of items like toy or look-alike guns, BB pistols or pocket knives — were up, as well as reports of violent or disruptive behavior.

Dan Smith, executive director for the School Administrators of Iowa, said schools have taken proactive safety and prevention measures like limiting access to school buildings once classes are in session, placing cameras in hallways to monitor activities and establishing disciplinary actions regarding weapons that have helped deter the problem over the years.

“I’m optimistic (the drop is weapons-related expulsions) is because we’ve had fewer kids bringing guns to school,” Gannon said. “I think that’s the case because I don’t get as many phone calls as I used to about the issue.”

While the number of disciplinary incidents totaled 68,666 in 2011-12 and 70,446 the previous year, the number of actual student involved was around 47,000 due to multiple actions taken against some policy violators. Overall, school officials said, that’s about 10 percent of the statewide student population of about 475,000 youngsters.

“Most kids in school aren’t involved in any type of disciplinary behavior problem,” said Jay Pennington, an official in the state Department of Education who compiles the data on removals submitted to his agency by school districts.

Safe schools

“In the big picture, our schools are safe and our teachers and our administrators are doing everything they can for these kids who unfortunately fall into this small percentage of behaviors that disrupt learning,” said Tammy Wawro, a Cedar Rapids teacher who is president of the Iowa State Education Association — the largest teachers’ union.

Wawro said the data on student removals is somewhat subjective from district to district but overall she was happy to see statewide expulsions had dropped from 200 in 2010-11 to 159 the following year — an action that she viewed as a last resort in dealing with unruly situations.

“As soon as you head to expulsion, you lose those kids,” she noted. “For the good of the community and the good of the students as a whole, expulsions need to be a very, very last resort. We know we lose those kids. It’s just not good for students.”

Wawro said there are many situations that are dealt with in the classroom that do not get sent to the administration or where counseling services are effectively employed to prevent disruptions from making it into the statewide statistics.

“Expulsions and out-of-school suspensions just aren’t good for kids if at all possible,” she added. “They’re working harder and harder to try to keep those students within the walls of the school building and to try to bring parents in to build that communication up. That takes a lot of time and energy.”

Technology impact

One unknown in the school data is how the rise of cellphones and new technology may be playing out in disruptive behavior just as cyberbullying or inappropriate tweeting or texting.

“I think you’ll find there are some issues with kids, especially with the changes in technology,” Gannon said. “You have kids in trouble for misuse of cellphones or misuse of the Internet and may get an in-school suspension for something like that.

“There are more opportunities for kids to get in trouble these days than there used to be because of technology — taking inappropriate pictures, inappropriate texting, whatever you want to come up with,” she said. “That’s probably the No. 1 battle that administrators are facing these days and so you’ve got more kids getting in trouble because of that.”

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