Initiative targets problem students But not all pupils are influenced by disciplinary programs

October 19, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

On a recent hazy Saturday morning, several Howard High School students straggled into school before the clock struck 8.

They had come for three hours of mandatory study -- punishment for having disrupted lessons or skipped classes that week.

The punishment was part of a systemwide push to deal with the growing problem of disruptive youth in Howard County schools. The initiative includes Saturday school; evening school; expanded staffing at Gateway, the county's school for disruptive students; and pilot disciplinary programs in as many as three elementary schools.

The question some people -- especially students -- are asking: Do such approaches to bad behavior truly affect the system's most disruptive students?

The varied reactions of the students at Howard High's Saturday school showed just how difficult finding answers might be.

Most students indicated they were embarrassed.

"This my first time here, and I hope I don't have to do this anymore," said Kyle Hnilicka, a ninth-grader accused of shooting a rubber band in class. "I really hope not."

But some were not embarrassed.

"I've been here a hundred times, and it's always for the same thing," said Scott Katsikas, a 12th-grader who admits he sneaks off campus for lunch every school day.

"I am not eating the school lunch, no matter what," he said. "It's worth it to me to leave school for lunch. I get caught once every two weeks, and that's OK. No big deal."

Most students steer clear of trouble and have no problems. But a small, stubborn group -- those whom Howard County school officials are determined to target -- refuses to comply with rules.

"That stuff doesn't touch kids, not as far as I've seen," said Emily Coren, a ninth-grader at Oakland Mills High. "They just don't care. Nothing scares them."

'A deterrent effect'

Peter Leone, director of the University of Maryland's Center for the Study of Troubling Behavior, said, "I do think some kind of negative sanction can have a deterrent effect, but not for the worst kids. It's for the good or average kid who screws up now and then. For the very worst kids, they would laugh at this stuff."

The new disciplinary measures were developed by the Action Team for Disruptive Youth, appointed in December by school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

Five months later, the team -- made up of county teachers, administrators and counselors -- issued specific disciplinary recommendations and cost estimates.

Among them was the creation of a countywide discipline code and a new education department staff position -- filled by Craig Cummings, then an assistant principal at Patuxent Valley Middle School -- to oversee the new disciplinary activities.

School board members -- alarmed that between 1993 and last year suspensions among middle and high school students increased at more than six times the rate that enrollment did -- wholeheartedly supported the plan and approved more than $300,000 to implement it.

"People sense that classroom disruptions are becoming a bigger problem in our county," Cummings said. "There's a belief across the system that we need to do something to address it before it becomes overwhelming -- because it's not overwhelming now, not yet."

Some of the new measures -- Saturday school, in-house suspension -- have been used by administrators at some schools for years, overseen by teachers volunteering their time or by staff members paid with grant money.

But now county school funds have been set aside to include the programs in all middle and high schools. And, for the first time, programs for disruptive youth will extend to elementary schools.

The details of this program and others, such as an evening school, a discipline code and training for school staff, have not been worked out, Cummings said.

The elementary program is expected to be operating by January, the discipline code and staff training by next fall, he said.

Evening school -- for middle and high school students who have received long-term suspensions and otherwise would do their school work at home -- is expected to start as early as next month, he said.

Students unfazed

The prospect of night classes doesn't faze some students.

"Can I get an application?" said Anthony Parker, a senior at Oakland Mills High, only half-joking. "That would work for me because then I could get some sleep."

School officials insist it is too early to tell whether the new measures will have an effect on such attitudes.

"I think kids are getting the message," said Alice Haskins, the school system's instructional coordinator in charge of middle schools. "But sometimes it takes a little longer than this to feel an effect."

Lori Willoughby, a sixth-grade English teacher at Hammond Middle, said her school's experience in instituting a discipline code three years ago bears this out.

"It took maybe two weeks to a month to really sink in with sixth-graders," she said. "And they were easier because they were new. It took longer with the seventh- and eighth-graders because they were used to the old system."

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