Durham school leaders grapple with troubling statistics

Mar. 05, 2013 @ 09:30 PM

While the state’s rate of reportable crimes in schools dropped slightly last year, the rate in Durham Public Schools took an unpleasant climb – especially when it comes to alcohol, drugs and weapons.

Overall, reported crimes in grades K-12 for DPS jumped from 277 in 2010-11 to 333 in 2011-12. Local high schools, grades 9-12, accounted for 183 of those acts, up from 153 the year before.

“Most of the increase is in controlled substances,” said Tina Ingram, DPS security director, in a presentation to Board of Education members during Tuesday’s support services committee meeting. “We know Durham followed a statewide trend.”

In Durham schools, drug possession reports rose from 94 to 136 in 2011-12, compared to weapon and alcohol possession. Those increases were comparatively negligible.

“It’s not starting in our schools,” said Heidi Carter, chair of the DPS board. “They start in the community and our neighborhoods and then come into our schools.”

Ingram noted that the increased statistics don’t necessarily mean more crime in schools than happened in the past. Instead, they may just be hearing about it more often. In the past year, DPS has enacted new detection and deterrent efforts, such as Text-A-Tip for anonymous reports.

“Part of the increase was reflected by that,” Ingram said.

The district received more than 50 tips that led to investigations, she said. More parents seemed to use it than students, she added.

The good news from a district perspective: No persistently dangerous schools. Those are schools that report five or more acts of violence or sexual assault per 1,000 students in consecutive years and appear likely to continue the trend.

The bad news: An upward spike in weapon reports among elementary school students. Children aren’t packing handguns with their juiceboxes, but Ingram acknowledged that they’ve discovered more of them bringing pocket knives, scissors and other similar weapons into schools.

Board members also heard a report on suspensions, expulsions and dropout rates from Debbie Pitman, assistant superintendent for student, family and community services.

Fewer students are dropping out, down to 362 in 2011-12 from 444 in 2009-10. But the decline in dropout numbers wasn’t as pronounced compared to 2010-11, with 371.

No one’s been expelled from a DPS campus in four years.

“We have not needed to go there,” Pitman said.

But a statistic that drew much attention on Tuesday was for short-term suspensions by ethnicity. Black students, who made up 51.34 percent of enrolled students in 2012, were suspended 78.43 percent of the time. Hispanic students, representing 22.33 percent of the student population, accounted for 13.28 percent of the suspensions. White students, 20.65 percent of enrolled students, were suspended only 5.26 percent of the time.

“This blue line must upset you as much as it upsets me,” said Minnie Forte-Brown, the board’s vice chair, referring to the dominant pillar on the graph representing black student suspensions. “Black children are going to feel like they are made to be unwelcome. Perhaps we aren’t using the right strategies …. We have got to stop suspending children of color.”

She worried that DPS is contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.

“What, other than spending thousands on capturing hearts, are we going to do?” Forte-Brown asked.

Theresa McGowan, preventative services coordinator for DPS, explained that the district plans to launch a pilot program, called Second Chance, to try to provide alternatives for students at the schools that have experienced the worst problems with short-term suspensions: Neal, Lowe’s Grove and Githens middle schools. Those children will have the opportunity to attend a program at the Emily K Center in downtown Durham, she said.

Parents are expected to provide transportation, although the district can supply bus passes.

But board member Frederick Davis felt that DPS would be better served by offering such programs on school property.

“This can happen with funding,” he said. “It’s our duty to see that we can take the lead in finding funding to provide wraparound services like this on Durham Public Schools property.”

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