Tough school policy spurs debate

`Zero-tolerance' edict applied to 7-year-olds, critics complain

February 20, 1999|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,and Liz Bowie SUN STAFF

A seven-year-old gets a 29-day suspension from Grove Park Elementary for picking up a syringe and bringing it into the school. A first-grader at Roland Park Elementary is caught lighting matches in a bathroom. His punishment? Thirty-four days' suspension -- and counting.

Both of these penalties have been meted out since December in Baltimore's schools, against the backdrop of a systemwide debate over student discipline.

After prison-like troubles exploded at Southern High last fall, schools chief Robert Booker issued a "zero-tolerance" edict targeting egregious behavior. Fire-starters, weapon-toters and vandals are now automatically dealt with swiftly and harshly.

The number of long-term suspensions has been mushrooming since the beginning of the school year, and the school board is mulling a new, even tougher discipline policy.

Some city school officials -- including Booker -- say harsh responses must be enacted to beat back the growing incidents of horrible -- and dangerous -- student behavior.

But some critics say the new no-nonsense approach that helped tame Southern High lacks a sense of proportion. They point to the Grove Park and Roland Park suspensions as proof that some principals are treating wayward tykes the same as teen-age felons.

"Under the new policy, I worry that principals will think they have less discretion and more young children will be put out because of that," said Lina Ayers, director of schoolhouse legal services for Advocates for Children and Youth. "I think it is tragic that these children are put out for this amount of time. They can't make up the time."

Ayers said the system should be pursuing alternatives to long suspensions, especially when younger children are involved.

But school officials counter that anti-social student behavior is spinning out of control. Fights, fires and malicious property destruction are on the rise, they say -- and the perpetrators are getting younger and younger. Only a strong, consistent response will stop school hallways from becoming as chaotic as some city streets.

"Children are a mirror of society," said Mattie Gaines, who heads the system's suspension office. "So we're seeing an increase in this kind of behavior in school, just like everywhere else.

"Sometimes, you need to put students out to deal with the behavior," she continued. "We try to get them counseling, and we give them home-teaching if they're out for a long time, but the suspensions are also part of the punishment."

Gaines said it's not unusual to see students suspended for dozens of days, but the length of time should be appropriate for the infraction. An expulsion, she said, can mean a child will be out of school for 45 days -- an entire marking period -- but younger children are rarely given that much time.

The school board has still not decided which approach it will support.

Board members stood behind Booker as he pushed "zero-tolerance" last fall but have begged off several drafts of the new discipline policy they thought were too strict.

Some school board members indicated yesterday that the final draft of the policy, to be voted on at the next board meeting, is likely to include separate guidelines for dealing with young offenders.

"The whole idea is that we don't say we are finished with a child, but come up with a plan for that child," said board member Dorothy Siegel.

Siegel said she believes long-term suspensions are not appropriate for young children.

Gaines said the two seven-year-olds from Grove Park and Roland Park elementaries received the proper response.

"Do you have any idea how dangerous a syringe can be in a school or how much damage a fire can cause in a school?" Gaines asked. "We wouldn't have given out the punishments if we did not think they were appropriate."

`He's only seven'

The parents of the two children involved disagree.

"We felt as though suspension was warranted, but expulsion was not. He's only seven," said Valerie Giggers, whose son Nicholas was expelled for playing with matches in a Roland Park Elementary bathroom. "I don't like how they handled this whole thing." Giggers said her son never set fire to anything, but was lighting matches, blowing them out and tossing them into a toilet. Children in a hallway smelled the sulfur from the matches and called an assistant principal.

Giggers said Nicholas had never been suspended before, although he did have a habit of getting into trouble for being unruly in the classroom.

School officials told her that any kind of "match contact" was considered arson under the discipline code, so Nicholas was sent home.

"It seemed like they had been building a little case on him," Giggers said. "So they said he had to leave."

That was Dec. 17, and her son is still not in school.

Giggers has taken Nicholas to the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital for counseling, and fire officials have been working with her to teach him about the dangers of fire.

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