Prevention push

After another Colorado child commits suicide, the search for solutions intensifies at schools and the statehouse

PHOTO: Denver Post file

As the tragic circumstances of a Colorado fifth-grader’s suicide draws widespread attention, two state lawmakers said Friday they plan to introduce legislation next year aimed at helping schools try to prevent such cases.

“I want to have a conversation that 10-year-olds die by suicide,” state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet told Chalkbeat. “And we need to be doing more to help them.”

The Commerce City Democrat’s comments follow the death of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis, who hung herself in her closet, according to multiple reports. Ashawnty’s parents say she was “devastated” after a video of her confronting a bully after school was posted to a social media app, Musical.ly.

Anthony Davis and Latoshia Harris, Ashawnty’s mother and father, are raising questions about whether Sunrise Elementary in Aurora, part of the Cherry Creek School District, did enough to prevent the incidents before their daughter’s death.

Officials from the Cherry Creek School District say they took the appropriate steps. And suicide experts caution about attributing a suicide to a single event. Usually there are multiple factors, and clear answers are often elusive.

Still, Ashawnty’s death, along with a growing rate of suicides among Coloradans between the ages of 10 and 17, have parents, educators, activists and lawmakers wrestling with complex questions about bullying and suicide prevention in a digital age.

Suicide prevention resources

  • Colorado Crisis Services, 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255
  • Risk factors and warning signs from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

“We’re in a situation where students can no longer escape the bullying that happens at school, because of technology,” said Daniel Ramos, the executive director of One Colorado, which as the state’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization has taken a strong stance against bullying. “That’s something we need to better understand.”

It’s unclear how widespread bullying is in Colorado schools. Under Colorado law, schools aren’t required to exclusively report instances of bullying. They are, however, required to report events “detrimental to the welfare or safety of other students or of school personnel.” But that includes a wide range of issues, state officials said.

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a biennial questionnaire that a sample of Colorado students fill out on a volunteer basis, found in 2016 that by the eighth grade, half of all students reported being victims of bullying. And about 20 percent of high school students reported being a victim of bullying within the previous year.

Some Colorado schools — including some in the Cherry Creek School District — are attempting to make their schools safer places. More than 70 school are participating in a three-year, $2 million grant program to curb bullying.

“There’s no magic solution to reduce bullying,” said Adam Collins, the state Department of Education’s bullying prevention and education grant coordinator. However, the program is attempting to build teams of teachers, parents and students at participating schools to change the conversation around bullying.

“A lot of times, people feel like they want to help but they don’t know what to say or do,” Collins said, adding that some schools in the program are helping teachers come up with one or two different sentences they can use to defuse situations around bullying.

While some lawmakers are considering additional steps to prevent bullying at school, Michaelson Jenet and state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, want to equip educators and mental health providers with more tools to curb the state’s high child suicide rate.

Since the beginning of the year, there have been reported cases of children committing suicide in Colorado Springs, Littleton, Thornton and Grand Junction. The deaths have cut across racial and socioeconomic lines.

The rate of Colorado children taking their own lives has more than doubled in the last decade, data show. In 2016, nearly 10 out of every 100,000 Colorado kids took their own lives — 57 in total. Colorado’s suicide rate among children is one of the nation’s highest.

Todd’s bill would provide grants to schools for training teachers and staff in teaching life skills and preventing suicide.

“Our students need to be surrounded by highly qualified teachers, staff, and peers that have a greater level of focus on positive life skills and know when to seek higher levels of intervention to assist students indicating a need for help,” Todd said in a statement.

Michaelson Jenet’s bill would allow kids as young as 12 to meet with a licensed therapist to talk about their feelings without parental consent. Under current law, parents must be notified if a child under 15 seeks help.

The Commerce City lawmaker’s bill also would create a campaign to advertise the state’s suicide prevention text hotline and create a program to train adults in “mental health first aid.”

Michaelson Jenet, whose own son attempted suicide when he was 9, ran a similar bill seeking to lower the age of consent this year. It died in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

“This is the No. 1 question for our society in Colorado,” she said. “We have to answer the question —- How do we stop our kids from dying?”

showing up

Nearly 60 percent of Newark 12th-graders are chronically absent. A conference on Tuesday will tackle the issue.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Last school year, nearly one in three Newark students was chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 or more school days. For Newark 12th-graders, the rate was nearly 60 percent.

The problem is the subject of an all-day conference on Tuesday at Rutgers University-Newark called, “Showing Up Matters: Shifting the Culture of Chronic Absenteeism.” Mayor Ras Baraka and Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory are both scheduled to speak.

The conference comes as educators and policymakers nationwide have zeroed in on chronic absenteeism, following research that shows it’s linked to negative outcomes for students including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

New Jersey is one of three dozen states that plans to evaluate and potentially sanction schools based on how many of their students are chronically absent — a measure that counts any day a student misses school, whether the absence is excused, unexcused, or for disciplinary reasons.

Newark’s chronic absenteeism rate is more than double the national average of 13 percent (a rate based on a slightly lower definition of 15 or more absences per year). In response, the district launched an attendance initiative in 2016 to drive down its chronic absenteeism rate, which is worse than in other high-poverty districts across the state. And two different city advisory groups — the Children’s Cabinet and the Newark Youth Policy Board — are focused on the issue.

Unsurprisingly, students who are absent a lot tend to do worse in school. In Newark, as in other districts, students who were chronically absent had lower state test scores and were less likely to graduate. The district found that just 58 percent of ninth-graders who were chronically absent in 2011-2012 earned diplomas four years later, compared to 86 percent of students with good attendance.

A 2017 report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey shed some light on why Newark students miss so much school. Among the reasons cited by dozens of high-school students who were interviewed for the report were: boring classes, coursework they couldn’t keep up with, mental-health challenges, long walks to school, having to hold down jobs or help care for siblings, and neighborhood violence.

“How can we focus on school when someone got killed yesterday?” one student is quoted as saying. “It’s hard. I can’t balance the two. I can’t focus. How am I supposed to feel safe walking to school when at night in that area there [are] shootings?”

Attendees are likely to grapple with tough questions like those at Tuesday’s conference, which goes from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Rutgers Paul Robeson Campus Center. You can find details here.

at odds

Westminster’s model part of dispute with federal investigators in education of students learning English

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Westminster schools may have failed to identify scores of students needing help learning English, and also neglected to effectively teach many of those students, according to a federal investigation. Those are among the findings in newly released documents behind the school district’s agreement to boost services for English learners.

The 9,400-student district signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in February, which outlines changes the district must make.

Despite the district’s agreement, Westminster Public Schools officials dispute the investigation’s findings.

“We still maintain that we were not out of compliance with the law,” said James Duffy, the district’s chief operating officer. But he said in the interest of students, “instead of continuing to argue and waste resources going back and forth, we are going to meet the agreement.”

Many of the disagreements center on how Westminster places and advances students based on proficiency rather than age, which is known as competency-based learning.

The district’s model also has put it at odds with the state. Last year, the district argued that Colorado’s accountability system unfairly flagged Westminster’s district for low performance, in part because some students were tested by the state on material they hadn’t yet been exposed to.

Below is a breakdown of the major ways the government believes Westminster schools were violating the law in serving English learners, the way the district argues they weren’t, and some next steps.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools has not identified all students that need English language services.

District officials said they had already identified problems in their process before the Department of Justice pointed them out, and were in the process of changing their system.

When a student enrolls in school, most districts require parents to fill out a home language survey that asks the language the students speaks and the language spoken in the home. The problem, in part, was that Westminster officials, years ago, were not testing students whose home language was something other than English, so long as parents had noted that their child did speak English.

“Based on experience with other states and school districts…this practice frequently results in the under-identification of ELs,” the justice department wrote.

This year, state numbers show Westminster has identified 38 percent of its 9,400 students, or 3,615, as English learners.

Officials said they have been using a new form, and said students are now tested for English proficiency when parents identify a primary language in the home that is not English. Teachers also can flag a student for testing and services.

The settlement agreement also requires the district to identify long-term English learners who have been enrolled in American schools for more than five years without making progress toward fluency.

Officials said they have identified 730 long-term English learners in the district. Parents of those students will soon receive letters asking if they are interested in sending their children to school this summer for a program to help those students make more progress.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools is not providing adequate services for students that need English language development.

According to the Department of Justice findings, most students in the district aren’t getting help to learn the language.

“Our site visits and review of data revealed that the type of language assistance services (English learners) receive varies widely, depending on which school they attend,” the department states. And when students are getting instruction to learn English, they aren’t always getting it from a teacher who is trained and certified to do so, they found.

Westminster schools use what they call an “interventionist framework” that combines specialists who have Colorado’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement, as well as other specialists, including special education teachers, to form a team of “interventionists” that all work with lagging students. That team works by going into classrooms throughout the day.

It’s a system that, in part, helps maximize the number of teachers working with students when the district doesn’t have enough of one kind, but it also can target which kind of help a student needs, Duffy said.

“We look at the need of our students and not the broad brush labels,” Duffy said. “They are getting services from a number of people. This is a program that has been recognized.”

But the district only tests students in English, meaning some students may not get an appropriate education.

When the district is trying to figure out what class levels to place a new student in, they test them for math and English using tests in English, so if a student can’t understand the test, they may not be able to demonstrate their ability to read or to do math and end up placed in classes below their ability.

District officials say that once in classrooms, teachers look at data closely and can determine if a student has been placed incorrectly just because of a language barrier. Teachers also have some flexibility in how they ask students to show they’ve learned a standard so they can move to another level.

“It’s just an initial placement,” Duffy said. “They are approaching this from a very traditional model. It’s not in alignment with our system.”

As part of the settlement agreement, however, the district must develop new procedures for testing and placing students, including “assessing ELL’s literacy and math levels in Spanish where appropriate and available.”

  • Finding: The district does not have enough staff for its English language learners and does not provide teachers with enough training to help students in their classes.

District officials admit they cannot hire enough trained staff to work with all students, but point out that it’s not a problem unique to their district.

According to district-provided numbers from December, 83 district staff have a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement. The February settlement agreement asks the district to increase the number of teachers with the endorsement.

To recruit these highly-sought after teachers, Westminster officials have gone to national job fairs and have provided signing bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, including for teachers with this credential. Going abroad to recruit foreign teachers has not been something Westminster can afford, Duffy said, but the district would hire qualified foreign teachers if they applied.

Westminster also provides out-of-state teachers with a stipend for moving expenses but runs into the high cost of living in Colorado.

“It’s scaring a lot of people away,” Duffy said.

One other incentive Westminster and many other districts offer is a tuition subsidy for teachers interested in earning the endorsement.

The Department of Justice also will require Westminster to develop new and additional training for district teachers who don’t have the credential, so they can better teach language learners.

The district is going to work with the University of Colorado Denver to provide that training. Duffy said officials submitted their teacher training plan to the Department of Justice, and are awaiting approval.