A 2-week vacation to straighten kids out?

March 03, 1996|By Sara Engram

WHAT'S THE worst part of a two-week vacation? Getting back to work, of course.

As any worker knows, readjusting after two weeks away from the job is a lot harder than re-entry after a week. Maybe someone should remind the governor of that -- along with whoever advised the administration that a helpful way to deal with disruptive students is to double the amount of time they can be suspended without a hearing from five days to 10.

With that kind of reasoning, schools might as well admit defeat and expel them altogether. After all, it's not unknown in some jurisdictions for schools to use suspension as a way to nudge troubled kids out the door for good.

Once they get far enough behind, they see no point in trying to catch up. That gives rise to the notion that some school systems don't have a ''drop-out'' problem as much as they have a ''force-out'' problem.

Once ''suspended,'' what happens to kids? Certainly they don't do much learning, at least not the kind that will improve academic performance.

Some parents will try to take time off work to supervise their children. But how many employers can tolerate five days of absences, much less 10? Imagine the dilemma parents face, forced to choose between preserving their livelihood and keeping their children out of further trouble while they are banned from class.

Ask neighborhoods around schools where suspensions are common what they think about doubling the time a kid can be suspended. These are the people who have to deal with the consequences, from littering and loitering to fights and vandalism.

Granted, violent students pose a dangerous problem. But this is one of those problems where perceptions are outracing reality.

An analysis of state suspension statistics by Advocates for Children and Youth shows about half of suspensions in 1994-95 resulted from rudeness, talking back to teachers or other non-violent behavior. Another 27 percent stemmed from fights between students that did not involve weapons. About 8 percent resulted from drugs, alcohol or tobacco. Some 7 percent were imposed because of aggressive behavior and weapons -- the kinds of incidents that justify the fears being raised across the state.

The governor's bill could have been a good one, if it actually provided for a range of alternative approaches to discipline problems, while reserving suspension and stiffer penalties for more dangerous cases.

But the legislation ended up including needlessly punitive measures, such as doubling the suspension time, while not including enough funding to support alternative measures like peer mediation programs or training teachers in de-escalating tensions before violence could occur.

The easy way out

Without sufficient funding for alternative approaches, schools are left with two-week suspensions as an easy way to crack down on kids. And, as the statistics show, the majority of the incidences that spark suspensions reflect behavior not at all uncommon to kids.

These students don't need to be banished. They need to feel needed. They also need help learning appropriate adult behavior, but that's hard to teach when they are thrown out of school long enough to lose track of their classwork.

It's not fair to other students to be intimidated, attacked, harassed or disturbed when they're trying to learn. Neither is it fair to include the majority of misbehaving students in the small category of kids whose offenses truly threaten the safety of others.

Why are students disruptive? Are they bored? Are they frustrated academically?

Shouldn't those questions be the first place to begin dealing with the problem, rather than immediately reaching for punishments?

There may be a way to salvage this bill. One suggestion floating around Annapolis is to take $5.25 million earmarked in next year's budget for a recognition program for high-performing or improving schools and use it to fund disciplinary alternatives.

That money -- and giving up on 10-day suspensions imposed with no hearings -- would go a long way toward making the administration's answer to violence in the schools a solution that makes sense.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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