Student suspensions, expulsions on increase

December 19, 1993|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Staff Writer

Student suspensions and expulsions are on the rise in Harford County, and a new school board report predicts this year's total will more than double the number of similar disciplinary cases recorded just five years ago.

As of Dec. 2, 169 students have received long-term suspensions -- more than five days -- or have been expelled from Harford schools since the school year began Aug. 30. By June, the number is expected to exceed last year's total of 440, the report said.

Recent years have shown a steady increase in overall long-term suspensions and expulsions: 413 in the 1991-1992 school year, 311 in 1990-91, 206 in 1989-90 and 201 in 1988-89.

"It's hard to know why the numbers have increased," said John M. Mead, executive director of pupil services at the Harford County Board of Education. "Certainly, the school population hasn't doubled in that time."

This year, there are 34,797 students enrolled in Harford County schools, compared with 29,497 in 1988-89, he said.

"Perhaps the nature of the school population has changed somewhat or the nature of society has changed somewhat," Mr. Mead said.

One thing is certain, he said: "Principals are not ignoring kids' behavior."

Once a student has been sent to the school office for discipline, administrators follow specific guidelines, Mr. Mead said. According to state regulations, principals can suspend a student for only five days. Cases that warrant harsher punishment are referred to the county school superintendent.

Of the 165 students suspended as of Nov. 24 -- the most recent breakdown available from the Board of Education -- 55 were suspended for five to 10 days and 55 for 21 to 30 days.

Harford students can be sent to the superintendent for several reasons, including assault and battery; carrying dangerous weapons; malicious burning; possession of controlled dangerous substances, medicines, alcohol, portable pagers and tobacco products, and sexual harassment.

That most recent information outlining the reasons for suspensions or expulsions includes 126 cases compiled through Oct. 31.

The largest numbers were:

* 23 for refusal to follow school policy. "A lump sum thing," Mr. Mead said.

* 20 for truancy. Mr. Mead said he doesn't expect this number to increase. "We see a lot of this in the beginning of school," he said.

* 15 for dangerous weapons/explosives. "Anything from firecrackers to knives," Mr. Mead said.

* 14 for physical attacks on a student.

* 11 for substance abuse.

Once a case is sent to the Board of Education, a designee of the superintendent investigates and holds a hearing with the student and his parents or legal guardian.

There are five county school administrators who hear cases, including Mr. Mead. After the hearing, a recommendation is made to School Superintendent Ray R. Keech.

"He ultimately makes the decision," Mr. Mead said.

A student and parent or guardian can appeal to the county school board, which can overturn the superintendent's recommendation or lessen the penalty but cannot increase the punishment, said Donald R. Morrison, Harford County school spokesman.

Those dissatisfied with the board's decision can appeal to the state Board of Education. The state board doesn't re-investigate the case but examines the local board's procedures to make sure they were followed correctly.

Another option for the parent or guardian is to turn to Circuit Court for "injunctive relief" allowing the student to return to school.

Students who are suspended or expelled aren't banished from the education system. The county provides an alternative education program at Bel Air High School that meets three nights a week and offers four major subject areas -- language, science, math and social sciences, Mr. Morrison said.

Preliminary objectives for the system's 1994-95 operating budget, approved at Monday's board meeting, call for an expanded alternative program meeting four nights a week and with another site at Aberdeen High School.

Christine R. LaPlaca, coordinator of alternative education in Harford County, said the students "tend to thrive on the individual attention they receive" in classes where the teacher-student ratio is one to eight.

But the main goal, she said, is to get the students "to thrive and survive in a day program."

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