The number of Durango School District 9-R students who have been expelled this year is up, mainly because of problems with substances such as alcohol and marijuana.
Nine students are in the district’s Phoenix Alternative Learning Center, a program for expelled students, Superintendent Dan Snowberger said. Enrollment in the program is the highest it’s been in about six years. Typically, enrollment is about three students, he said.
An additional 20 students could qualify for the Phoenix program but have been allowed to stay in school only if they don’t misbehave again, he said. Typically, students are placed on such contracts after a first serious offense, he said.
The Phoenix program currently has a “preponderance” of middle school students who have distributed substances, an expellable offense, he said. The distribution tends to be casual, he said.
For example, students bring vape pens to school and share them with their friends, which is considered distribution. Vape pens often contain marijuana and nicotine.
“It’s not rampant. It’s not happening in every classroom,” Snowberger said.
However, the district is seeing an increased number of students participating in expellable offenses, he said. In the past, the district has seen the same number of offenses involving repeat offenders, he said.
“Many of these kids, they made a serious mistake, and they don’t have a lengthy discipline record. While they committed an act that is expellable, we want to support them, and we want them to learn from it,” he said.
The Phoenix program is set up to support students of various ages and keep them engaged in school through online learning, Snowberger said. It is supervised by one teacher. The district is considering hiring a second instructor, so the program could separate high school and middle school students, he said.
The district also plans to open a therapeutic day school that could serve students in the Phoenix program who have substance abuse problems, he said.
Some students use substances to escape trauma they experience at home, Snowberger said, and the school could serve them.
“If all we worry about is discipline – removing kids from school and sending them home – that’s not going to solve the problem,” Snowberger said.
The day school could open in a few dedicated 9-R classrooms in the fall and provide services such as counseling, he said. The district may provide property for the school to have its own building in the future, he said.
The district is working with the Department of Human Services, La Plata Youth Services and community members on plans for the program, he said. The plans for the school are expected to develop over the next two months, he said.
The school could help those students struggling with mental health problems and substance use get engaged in class and set academic goals, Snowberger said.
“If we don’t have a goal or vision of what our future is going to be that we are looking forward to, all we’re going to do is fall deeper into that negativity,” he said.