Baltimore County schools have had the toughest drug- and alcohol-possession policy in Maryland since 1977.
This month, the policy is about to get tougher, and also satisfy one of its most visible and vocal critics, Mike Gimbel, director of the county's Office of Substance Abuse.
The current policy calls for automatic expulsion of any student caught on school grounds with illegal drugs or alcohol, even if school is not in session. Other school systems begin with a series of suspensions before expelling a student caught with drugs.
Starting Jan. 19, any county student expelled for drug or alcohol possession will be required to be evaluated by Gimbel's office, and to complete a drug-treatment or education course before the student can be re-admitted.
Gimbel praised the new requirement, saying it will force kids with drug or alcohol problems to deal with their problems before getting back into day school. Expelled students typically attend night school and are readmitted to day school after a quarter or half of the school year.
School Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel said about a tenth of 1 percent of the total school population of about 84,000 faced expulsion for drug and alcohol possession last year.
Statistics show that 91 county students were expelled during the 1989-90 academic year, the second straight year a decline had been recorded. A total of 166 students were expelled in 1987-88 and 105 in 1988-89, according to school officials.
The county drug coordinator has been a critic of the tough expulsion policy over the last decade, charging that it failed to provide any treatment for kids expelled, leaving them to roam the streets while their friends remained in school.
In the last several years, Gimbel said, he has detected a change in attitude among school officials. He credited school health coordinator John S. Heck with developing the new requirements and shepherding them through the school bureaucracy to the Board of Education, which approved them Nov. 15.
In the past, Gimbel said, school authorities viewed any attempt to require counseling or treatment for expelled students as a move to soften their tough approach to removing problem children from the schools. In recent years, however, school officials have introduced more drug-education courses and Baltimore County was one of the first six jurisdictions in Maryland to introduce the Student Assistance Program, in which teachers and counselors are trained to spot students with problems before they get into more serious trouble.
Because the county substance-abuse office already monitors expelled students who are scheduled for hearings before state juvenile services arbitration workers, the new requirement won't cost anything extra.
The new requirement requires expelled students to be screened by the drug and alcohol evaluators within five days of their expulsions, so that treatment or education can start much sooner for the students, Gimbel said.
Should the evaluation show no chronic problem, the child would be referred to a five-week drug-education program, to include a visit to the Shock-Trauma Unit in Baltimore to see the sometimes gruesome effects of alcohol or drug abuse.
Should the youngster be found to be chemically dependent, the county substance-abuse office, working with school health officials, would draw up a treatment referral, usually to a non-profit drug treatment program such as the Community Counseling and Resource Center in Cockeysville. Should the courses and follow-up monitoring be completed to the county's satisfaction, and should the school superintendent agree, the child would be re-admitted.
Dubel said most students expelled under the policy, which also covers students found guilty of serious disruptive behavior or for bringing weapons to school, are readmitted to day school. Usually, only seniors expelled during their last year finish at night or choose to seek a General Equivalency Degree.
When the county schools first began its get-tough policy in the 1977-78 school year, a record 297 students were expelled.
The policy remained controversial for several years, with critics claiming that the superintendent was merely ridding the school system of its problem students and leaving them on the streets for society at large to deal with.
Dubel countered that the policy would discourage drug use in schools and help the vast majority of students who remained in class.