Students' suspension rate drops

1998-1999 was lowest in six years, despite higher enrollments

Combination of factors

`Multiple' offenders targeted by pupil personnel workers

July 29, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

The number of students suspended in Carroll County public schools last year dipped to its lowest level in six years -- even though enrollment has increased by more than 3,000 students, school officials said yesterday.

School administrators said the numbers -- which show significant declines in suspensions for fighting and more modest drops for weapons possession -- are especially heartening at a time when many parents nationwide are jittery about sending their children to school because they fear the environment is unsafe.

Suspensions last year dropped by 12.8 percent from the 1997-1998 school year, from 2,806 to 2,448. The number of students suspended during the same time period also fell, from 1,590 to 1,386. Slightly more than 5 percent of the student population was suspended last year, compared with 5.9 percent the year before, school officials said.

Richard J. Simmons, a pupil personnel worker in charge of monitoring these rates, attributed the drop to a combination of factors.

Many principals, he said, are using alternative methods of discipline -- such as in-school and after-school suspensions or Saturday school -- that lower suspension numbers without necessarily cutting problems.

But many other programs, Simmons said, such as crisis counseling, peer mediation, conflict resolutions and an emphasis on respect and responsibility at the elementary level, might be teaching youngsters that getting into a fight is not the preferred way to settle a misunderstanding.

Suspensions for fighting last year fell by 22 percent from the year before.

Among the 35 other categories, suspensions for truancy fell by 17 percent and tardiness by 39 percent. Drug-related suspensions remained at the same level. Tobacco related suspensions rose by 26 percent.

Simmons said his department is targeting students who are suspended "multiple" times -- defined by the system as more than three times per year -- helping them to solve personal problems that could be causing their disciplinary troubles.

The number of students suspended "multiple" times fell by 14 percent last school year. Still, 143 students accounted for 30 percent of the total suspensions. Five students accounted for 56 suspensions.

"Suspensions are an act of last resort, and you want a kid back as soon as possible," Simmons said. "We want a resolution to the problem and a change in behavior."

Cynthia Little, director of pupil services and special programs, applauded the suspension numbers, and said they suggest efforts to keep violence out of the classroom are working.

"This tells me that our schools are generally succeeding in efforts to have safety as a priority for our students and staff," Little said.

Thirty-seven suspensions last year were for carrying a firearm or other weapon into school -- the majority were knives -- compared with 44 the previous year. However, no students were suspended for firearms possession in 1997-1998, compared with two cases last year.

In general, principals determine whether a student is suspended and for how long.

In a few cases -- threats of violence, violent acts and possession of drugs, alcohol or weapons -- the school system requires a suspension, even for a first offense.

Administrators said that on average suspensions last about two days. But possession of alcohol, for example, brings a mandatory five days out of school.

High schools saw the biggest drop in suspension rates. While 285 more students were enrolled in Carroll's high schools last year compared with 1997-1998, there were 379 fewer suspensions.

The middle-school level had 52 fewer suspensions. Elementary schools had 73 more suspensions, with 325 recorded in 1998-1999.

One case study from last year is North Carroll High School.

The number of North Carroll suspensions dropped from 314 to 126, and the number of students suspended fell from 175 to 86 compared with the year before.

Assistant Principal Ron Laczkowski could point to no single program or initiative that brought about the change.

Laczkowski said administrators made an effort to be more visible in hallways between classes to let students know they were interested in interacting with them, and that many students who seemed on the verge of fighting were quickly sent to conflict counselors.

"There just seemed to be an awful lot of pride in the building this year," he added. "And when you've got that going on, it's a much better place."

Pub Date: 7/29/99

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