In an effort to better understand longstanding racial and ethnic disparities in student punishment, the Boulder Valley School District has released a data dashboard that provides the most detailed glimpse yet into how the problem is playing out in each of its 57 schools.
The dashboard, published in August, is a response to calls from Black and Latino parents who are concerned about their children being punished more harshly for the same behavior as white students. The new data indicate that BVSD’s Latino students are nearly three times more likely than white students to be suspended both in and out of school. (For out-of-school suspensions, it’s about 3.5 times, according to an analysis by Boulder Reporting Lab.)
Such disparities continue to be common across Colorado, despite extensive research showing that suspending students and referring them to police can reduce their odds of excelling academically and graduating. Punishment can also increase their odds of involvement with the criminal legal system.
Like other districts in Colorado, BVSD has streamlined punishment guidelines across classrooms, removed police officers from schools, and trained staff on how to de-escalate and resolve conflicts among students without resorting to discipline.
BVSD’s new data is among the most granular of any school district in the state. Denver Public Schools publishes discipline data by network, not by school.
For the most recent 2021-2022 school year, Boulder High, the district’s largest school, had the highest disparities in suspension rates. Latino students were about 6.5 times more likely to be suspended than white students. While they made up about 25% of the school’s 2,139 students, they accounted for about 66% of the suspensions.
Boulder High had an overall suspension rate more than twice that of Fairview High School in South Boulder. Centaurus High School in Lafayette had the highest overall suspension rate, about 67 suspensions per 1,000 students. Broomfield High School had the lowest overall suspension rate.
The district’s largest middle schools also had disparities. While Latino students made up 25% of the population at Centennial Middle School, they accounted for 56% of the suspensions. Broomfield Heights Middle School and Casey Middle School had the highest overall suspension rates.
District officials said the data dashboard is a major step toward transparency. But they also cautioned against drawing conclusions from the raw data without additional context.
BVSD’s Superintendent Rob Anderson said it might not be fair to compare high schools given differences in their student populations. The discipline rate reflects other inequities, he suggested.
“There’s differences in the percentage of students that may be facing challenges — free and reduced lunch, disability, and so on,” Anderson said in an interview. “I think that a better comparison is how they’re doing with the same population against themselves over time.”
Likewise, he said, data from schools with more equitable discipline rates might not provide answers for what other schools can do to address disparities.
“To the extent that you would think that a school with less discipline has all the answers, they may not have the same challenges from the kids that they serve,” Anderson said.
Anderson joined the school district in 2018 after overseeing a much larger district in Atlanta, Georgia. He warned against comparing the most recent data from the 2021-2022 school year to prior years, in part due to reporting inconsistencies among schools. The dashboard shows data going back to the 2017-2018 school year.
He said the district has recently provided more clarity to schools for how to report discipline.
“I couldn’t verify whether or not everybody was putting everything into the system,” Anderson said of discipline data. “There was no quality control around that. If you can’t verify the quality of data, I just think it’s irresponsible to try to make comparisons.”
Anderson said he hopes schools use the most recent data as a benchmark for future progress. He said schools across the district will be submitting improvement plans in October 2022 that may include steps to address discipline rates and disparities.
State laws require school districts to report data on discipline for each school to the state. For more than a decade, racial and ethnic disparities in student discipline rates have been prevalent statewide, according to a recent analysis of state data by Boulder Reporting Lab, part of Chasing Progress, a Colorado News Collaborative project. When compared to similarly sized school districts, BVSD has relatively low overall discipline rates, but some of the state’s largest disparities.
Boulder Reporting Lab requested interviews with principals from Boulder High School, Centaurus High School and Broomfield High School. Randy Barber, a spokesman for the district, said the district would be answering media questions about the data.
The dashboard can be found here. The underlying data is not available for download.
Some parents who have advocated for the more detailed data want to see the district go deeper.
“What are these children being suspended for?” Jamillah Richmond, a member of the District Accountability Committee, an oversight panel required under state law and made up of parents, said. “And what are the alternatives to that, and why are we not pursuing that?”
District data provided to Boulder Reporting Lab through open records requests indicate Latino students are generally punished for the same behaviors as their white peers — threats of physical harm, disobedience, fighting, possessing tobacco and marijuana.
Richmond said she would like to see Boulder High name racism in its plan for addressing disparities. Otherwise, she said, schools help create a narrative that their kids are doing something wrong.
“Why are we omitting that from the conversation? This is the root cause,” she said. “Everything else is a byproduct of racism.”