Schools try a different form of discipline

January 02, 1991|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

Playing "hooky" or violating the school dress code can earn you a one- to three-day suspension from school, or "disciplinary removal," as it's called these days.

But school officials are experimenting with an even tougher punishment for certain offenses that keeps the student in school.

No more staying at home playing Nintendo and raiding the refrigerator. No more sneaking out the door after mom and dad have gone to work.

Instead, those students can expect a steady diet of schoolwork in a special room for up to three days, under the watchful eye of a teacher's aide.

The room is called the "Adaptive Center," an alternative to traditional suspension that lets students keep up with their studies until they are ready to rejoin their regular class.

A one-year pilot project already has begun at Robert Poole Middle School in Hampden, and is being started at two other Baltimore schools, Lombard and Dunbar middle schools. At least seven city elementary schools are experimenting with the concept independently.

The pilot project is funded through an $80,000 grant from the Abell Foundation and the state Department of Education. It could be renewed if it proves successful.

The program focuses on students with relatively minor -- but disruptive -- behavior problems, which might include repeatedly challenging the teachers' authority, cutting school or having minor scuffles with fellow students.

"We provide the supervision, the child stays 'on task,' he doesn't get behind in his work," said Willie J. Foster, the city's director of middle schools.

But while in the special classroom, students are not allowed to participate in other regular activities, including gym class or even lunch with their fellow students.

"One of the consequences of coming here is you never do anything but work," said Mary H. Silva, principal of Robert Poole.

"Most of the students are so afraid to come back here and to miss the socialization that they straighten up," said Albert L. Harris Jr., the teachers' aide in charge of the room at Robert Poole.

Baltimore schools have several types of suspension, depending on the severity of the offense.

The least severe is the one- to three-day "disciplinary removal" for relatively minor violations of school rules, which can be done at the discretion of the school principal.

Repeated offenses and more serious discipline problems, such as fighting, stealing or vandalism, can draw formal "suspension," which must be approved by the Office of Special Pupil Services.

The most serious offenses -- including the sale or possession of drugs, or possession of weapons -- are automatic candidates for "expulsion," which must be approved by the superintendent.

The pilot program involves the least severe punishment, and is a recognition that traditional suspension may not be the deterrent it once was for many students.

"For some students, they do not view being sent home as a punishment -- they view it almost as a holiday," said Matthew H. Joseph, program officer for the Abell Foundation.

At the very least, students fall behind in their classwork by being out of school for several days. Because many parents work, children may lack supervision during the day, with no guarantee that they even stay at home.

But Joseph also said that some studies have shown "a devastating impact on the student" who is suspended, including a long-term drop in attendance and increased dropout rates.

Baltimore's experiment works like this, according to Foster:

A student who does something that could require a short suspension is referred to the principal's office. Half of those students will be assigned to the adaptive center, instead of being sent home for "disciplinary removal."

The setting is a special classroom that would accommodate no more than 15-to 20 students at one time. In charge of the adaptive center is an especially trained teachers' aide strict enough to deal with students who have shown disciplinary problems.

The child is required to articulate the reason for being sent to in-school suspension, during an entry interview. During the course of the stay, the child completes a special series of assignments designed by the regular classroom teacher, tailored to the child's particular needs.

In addition, school counselors visit the center to work with the children. Children who have been involved in fighting might participate in a session on how to deal with conflict, for example. Children could be referred to a social worker or screened for special education programs.

Before the child can return to the regular classroom, the parents must have a meeting with the teacher and a school administrator.

Foster estimated that during any given week, about 20 to 30 students at a particular 800-student middle school might be referred to administrators for disciplinary reasons.

She estimated that several hundred students could go through the three adaptive centers in the course of the pilot year.

At Robert Poole, a total of 17 students were assigned to the adaptive center in the month of November, and about 10 more by early December.

The teachers' aide in charge of the room is convinced that it offers a good alternative to traditional suspension.

"A lot of our kids go home and they're very idle," said Harris a teachers' aide for 21 years. One boy, he recalled, "said he wished he was home because he'd be playing his Nintendo. To me, Nintendo is not learning anything."

And Harris cited an even more practical reason for the experiment. "This will keep students off the street," he said.

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