School resource officer

Hal Richardson, a student resource officer, poses for a photo earlier this year at Bozeman High School.

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A new report criticizes Montana schools for suspending and arresting too many students, saying such practices deprive students of an education, set kids up to fail and fall heavily on Native American and minority students.

Bozeman School Superintendent Bob Connors said Thursday that at first blush, the report appears to validate the 7,111-student Bozeman district’s less harsh approach to discipline.

“I think we’re on the right path,” Connors said.

The report, “Empty Desks: Discipline & Policing in Montana’s Schools,” was issued this week by the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It said disciplining Montana students with out-of-school suspensions cost them more than 18,000 days of lost instruction in the 2015-2016 school year.

The ACLU report called for limiting out-of-school suspensions, investing more in mental health counselors and eliminating routine police presence in schools.

Connors said that the ACLU report was based on data from four years ago, and many school districts have come a long way since then, using trauma-informed and restorative justice approaches.

“I think everyone has evolved,” Connors said.

Bozeman isn’t mentioned in the report, which focused more on problems at schools on or near Indian reservations. It found native students were suspended and arrested about six times more than white students. Connors said about 170 students or 2.6% of Bozeman students are Native American.

The ACLU report concluded that about half of Montana’s public schools don’t resort to out-of-school suspensions and just 33 schools accounted for all arrests in schools, showing those practices aren’t necessary. Most arrests occurred at East Middle School in Great Falls and Flathead High School in Kalispell.

Bozeman High School doesn’t routinely kick kids out of school, but prefers “in-school suspension” (called ISS or “Ice”), Connors said. ISS takes high school students who face discipline out of their regular classes but keeps them attending school in separate classrooms so they can continue to keep up with schoolwork.

Montana Office of Public Instruction statistics show that Bozeman High had 129 in-school suspensions, compared to 42 out-of-school suspensions, in 2015-2016.

Of Bozeman High’s 129 suspensions, 104 were of white students, 15 were Hispanic students and 20 were students with disabilities, said Dylan Klapmeier, OPI spokesman.

In Bozeman’s elementary and middle schools, there were 150 in-school suspensions and 59 out-of-school suspensions. Fewer than five students were arrested in either the high school or elementary district — numbers so small they weren’t made public to protect students’ privacy.

Bozeman schools have expanded and emphasized mental health counseling. The Bozeman district won a $3.3 million U.S. Department of Justice grant in 2014 to launch a pilot project testing whether dealing with kids’ traumatic experiences (such as divorce, homelessness and abuse) would make a difference in their school performance.

The SAFE-TI grant paid for training all teachers on how trauma affects students’ behavior and paid for eight “student assistance specialists,” who taught students how to handle their emotions and created supportive environments for kids.

“The trauma-informed model is so much better – it gives students more tools in their toolbox” to cope with difficulties, Connors said.

Bozeman school leaders lobbied the 2019 Legislature to pass a bill allowing a local property tax to pay for hiring people, not just cameras and locks, to keep schools safe.

The bill passed, so this school year, after the SAFE-TI grant ran out, the Bozeman district is using the new law to raise $418,000 to go toward four school resource officers (SROs) and four student assistance specialists.

The ACLU report criticized having police routinely in schools, saying schools with SROs had twice as many days of schooling lost, nine times more student arrests and lower graduation rates.

However in Bozeman, administrators, school board trustees and parents see SROs as keeping students safer in an era of school shootings.

This year Bozeman High has two SROs, Sgt. Hal Richardson and Officer Mark Van Slyke. Two more SROs work out of Sacajawea and Chief Joseph middle schools and also cover four elementary schools each.

Connors said the best way to use SROs is to have them work as educators and build relationships with students, not act as disciplinary deans. If SROs get to know students, they can be proactive and head things off, he said.

Bozeman schools plan to hire a fifth SRO next school year when Gallatin High School first opens and to have six SROs by the following year, so both high schools would have two officers.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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