Md. schools moving from zero-tolerance discipline policies

HealthSportsJoe A. Hairston

State school board members still don't know her name, but a Dorchester County girl who was denied access to an education for a year is the pivotal figure in their push to abandon long-held zero-tolerance discipline policies across Maryland.

The 15-year-old's suspension for fighting drew little attention at the time. But it so angered board members that they launched a statewide review of discipline policies.

This month, the board is expected to propose regulations that would keep students, even those with behavior problems, in school as much as possible. The regulations would do away with more than a third of all suspensions, according to the state's data.

Specifically, the board says it will propose to reduce suspensions for nonviolent behavior, make districts reduce the disproportionate suspensions of minorities and special education students, and require students to get educational services when they are out for a long period.

Already, a number of local school officials say they are trying to move away from harsh discipline policies and toward a more balanced approach.

"We have taken this different look and different approach to provide teachers with support and administrators with support so that we can keep kids in the classroom and learning," said Leon Washington, director of safe and orderly schools in Anne Arundel County. For example, county officials are training administrators and teachers on how to pick up cultural clues in dealing with students of different backgrounds, and how to handle students who talk back.

Baltimore City has significantly reduced nonviolent infractions during the past four years after revising discipline policies. And Baltimore County, which has one of the highest suspension rates in the metro area, is trying to bring the numbers down.

"We are revising our student handbook to make sure that we are not over-identifying infractions that might warrant alternative solutions," Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said in an e-mail.

The proposals by the state board could stir some controversy, however.

Montgomery County, one of the few local systems that would comment on the proposals, said it is willing to work with the state but has some reservations.

"We have serious concerns about a policy that would limit out-of-school suspensions to only the most serious, violent offenses," said Dana Tofig, a Montgomery spokesman. "Some offenses, while not violent by definition, can create an unsafe, even threatening, environment for the staff and students of a school. It is important to remember ... there are victims that deserve to have their rights protected. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work."

'Back on track'

Maryland State School Board President James DeGraffenreidt called the Dorchester case the "genesis" of the board's call for change. After being held out of school for a year, "what is going to be different when the student goes back?" he asked.

The girl was a ninth-grader on Sept. 8, 2008, when another student bumped into her and made an insulting comment. When she started fighting with the other student, an administrator and teacher jumped in to break up the fight. "In the meantime, a crowd quickly formed, knocked the teacher down and trampled on her several times," according to the documents in the case.

The girl was expelled for a year, and given homework assignments after her mother called to complain about a lack of work. The state board wrote in its opinion that there was "no follow up, no grading, no interaction between the educators and the student for a full year."

When James Bell, the head of student support services for Dorchester County, later took his job, he reached out to the family.

"We sat down and talked about how to get her back on track. We have created ways for the young lady to get caught up. She is right at the end and graduation is in sight," Bell said, adding that the road for her has not been easy.

The student and her mother did not respond to requests for an interview.

Dorchester County's superintendent, Henry Wagner, who also has taken his job since the girl was expelled, said he wants to change the county's bad reputation for its discipline policies. Dorchester suspended 14 percent of its students in the 2010-2011 school year, the highest rate in the state.

Determined to change the culture in his small system, Wagner has already instituted a plan to reduce the number of suspensions, in part by giving teachers and staff better training. Students no longer get suspended without receiving services, he said.

While the state school board spent a year collecting data and studying how different school systems hand out suspensions, a series of disciplinary actions received prominent attention.

In Fairfax County, Va., a football player and honor student committed suicide after authorities found a pill that was not illegal in his locker, suspended him for months, then transferred him to a different high school.

And in Easton, two lacrosse players were suspended, and one was arrested, because their lacrosse bags contained a lighter and pen knives used to fix their lacrosse sticks. The Talbot County school system suspended them because the items were considered weapons. An appeal is pending.

Even school systems with low suspension rates, like Montgomery County, have kept students out of school for long periods.

Several students in that county have received long-term suspensions or expulsions without access to an education, according to attorney Jennifer Barmon.

She represents a Montgomery County student who was expelled last fall and will be out of school until at least May.

The 15-year-old boy's mother, Teresa Brown, said her son was expelled for fighting with another student as they walked home from school. The other student was taken to the emergency room.

Brown said her son feels remorse. "He realizes it will affect the rest of his life," she said.

After the expulsion, Brown said, she explored options for keeping her son in an educational program of some kind, but could find nothing. He was too young for most programs, she said, so he is working, taking anger management classes once a week and doing community service.

She said she cannot afford to send him to a private school.

Barmon believes that school districts have a legal obligation to provide educational services to any student who is younger than 16 because of a state law that requires parents to have their children in school until that age.

"We have a kid who, judging from his history, needs more services, not fewer services," she said.

In general, Montgomery County students who are expelled do not receive services unless they are special education students, said Tofig, the spokesman, who added that he could not speak to specific cases. "As a rule, students whose cases are pending are offered work from the school to complete at home, or through our home and hospital service."

Creative approaches

Sarah S. Pelham, assistant superintendent for student support services in Anne Arundel County, said she believes the key to reducing "soft offenses," those that don't involve violence, is helping teachers establish better relationships with students. Students are more likely to behave when they feel their teacher knows and respects them.

"For violent offenses, drug distribution, we still need to send the message. And that is not something our teachers should have to tolerate," Pelham said.

More creative approaches — such as allowing students who have misbehaved to view classes on a video — should be tried, said Baltimore County teachers union president Abby Beytin.

Just requiring districts to reduce suspensions "is not going to address the problem and it is only going to make it harder on the teachers and harder on the other students," she said, adding that there are more discipline problems when class sizes are larger.

Washington, the Anne Arundel administrator, said zero-tolerance policies came into effect when school systems saw an increase in fighting, assaults and weapons, and tried to address an outcry from principals.

"We needed to do something to make schools safe," he said. "Sometimes, we jumped to the most serious way of handling situations. ... For some folks that meant expelling students, suspending kids."

Over the years, he said, school administrators began to see that the number of dropouts was increasing, and academic performance was decreasing.

Doug Edsall, the parent of one of the Easton High lacrosse players, said he was stunned that having items used for lacrosse repairs would warrant a suspension.

His son is a senior at Easton High, and his year has been complicated by having to explain his suspension as he applied to colleges.

"College applications request suspension details," Edsall said. "When trying to explain that the explosive device was a lighter in a lacrosse bag, the common response is 'There must be more to this story than what you are telling us.'"

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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