For the first time, the Colorado Department of Education has broken out marijuana from student expulsion figures related to drugs -- and during the most recent school year, pot was by far the leading reason for pupils being expelled.
This information is concerning to two experts with whom we communicated -- but figures pertaining to suspensions and expulsions over the past decade show that while the overall trend is rising, the numbers have actually dropped the past couple of years.
Earlier this week, outlets such as 7News reported that of the 720 kids removed from Colorado public schools during the 2012-2013 school year, 230 of them, or 32 percent, were sent packing due to marijuana use. That number is said to be than double the total for the next highest reason for expulsion, detrimental behavior, and triple that for all other drugs, as well as disobedience and violations related to alcohol or weapons.
Now, however, Janelle Krueger, the program manager with the CDE's Expelled and At-Risk Student Services Grant in the CDE's Office of Dropout Prevention and Engagement, has assembled a new spreadsheet looking at Colorado public schools suspension and expulsion actions for drugs in general over a twelve-year period, 2001-2002 to 2012-2013. The complete document is below, but the following graphic lists the number of drug-related suspensions for 2012-2013 at 4,319 and expulsions at 614.
The 2012-2013 totals are big, no doubt -- but the drug-related suspension number is actually lower than the one in each of the two previous years, while the expulsion figure hasn't been this low since the 2008-2009 school year.
Nonetheless, the marijuana info is undeniably the big attention-getter in the latest data. According to Krueger, corresponding via e-mail, her program is required to issue an evaluation report to the state legislature, and "we separated out marijuana as a reason for the first time for the 2012-13 school year from the larger drug category because of hearing from numerous sources that marijuana-related incidents were on the rise. This would provide us with a subset of data specific to marijuana."
Unfortunately, comparing the 2012-2013 marijuana findings to prior years "is not possible," Krueger points out, because "the data does not exist." For that reason, we don't know if the latest marijuana numbers are going up or down. But there's no question that suspensions and expulsions for drugs went up in a noticeable way during the 2009-2010 school year, which roughly coincided with the medical marijuana boom in Colorado. Here's another graphic showing that trend.
Given the timing, it's reasonable to assume that increased accessibility to marijuana was a big factor in this change. And while the numbers appear to be moderating, Krueger remains very concerned about them. Continue for more about marijuana and expulsions in Colorado schools, including a video and an original document. "The sharp rise in drug-related incidents in recent years is both alarming and worrisome because it coincides with changing social norms that mislead youth into believing that marijuana is not harmful to them," Krueger maintains. "This follows on the heels of the elimination of the federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program, which provided local school districts resources to educate youth about the harmful consequences of drugs."
These views are echoed by Christine Harms, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, affiliated with the Department of Public Safety.
"Anecdotally, we're hearing from school folks that marijuana use appears to be an issue at schools," she says. "Some kids have been showing up with marijuana in their possession, and in some cases, I don't think they understand the ramifications of having an illegal substance like that at school."
Neither do they realize that pot "has so much more of a negative effect on the adolescent brain than it does on adults," she adds, referencing the research of Dr. Christian Thurstone, medical director of a Denver Health program called Substance Abuse Treatment, Education and Prevention (STEP). Thurstone's work is controversial among marijuana advocates, but widely cited by medical and educational officials.
"We're just trying to alert folks as to the ramifications for youth using this drug," Harms adds, "and frankly, we would like parents to understand how really detrimental it can be to their teenagers. Parents are role models: Students will still listen first to parents about any type of substance use, whether it's alcohol, tobacco or marijuana. And I think parents having pointed conversations with their children about the risk of marijuana usage for anyone under the age of 21 is really important."
In Harms's view, "I think we've probably inadvertently given students the message that marijuana is a medication, and now it's legal, so maybe it's not so harmful. But it still is harmful to them, and it's still illegal for anyone under the age of 21."
With that in mind, Harms encourages parents to visit SpeakNowColorado.org, a CDE website designed to help parents talk to kids about drugs. And Krueger suggests a stop at the CDE's dropout-prevention-resources page.
"Parents and educators should adopt a no-use stance in consideration of keeping youth safe and healthy and to help youth make responsible decisions to keep themselves safe and healthy," Krueger writes.
Here's the 7News report about the marijuana data, followed by the complete spreadsheet assembled by Krueger.
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More from our Marijuana archive circa February 2010: "Medical marijuana fallout: Kids getting addicted to their 'medicine,' psychiatrist says."