Stress felt in middle schools

Suspensions on rise as adolescent energy runs into discipline

Other ages behave better

September 20, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

In the behavior department, Howard County students did a flip-flop last school year.

The number of suspensions in middle schools increased while suspensions in elementary and high schools declined, according to a report that will be presented to the Board of Education tonight.

That's the opposite of the previous school year, when middle school incidents dropped and the county's older and younger children were suspended more often.

What gives?

"The numbers go up and down every year," said Alice Haskins, the system's director of middle schools. "I don't think we should try to attribute the numbers to anything."

Still, Haskins found the increase in middle school suspensions somewhat alarming. They grew enough to cause the system's total number of suspensions to increase, even with fewer suspensions in high schools and grade schools. That fueled a trend of rising suspension numbers for the school district as a whole.

Last school year, 2,869 incidents led to children being suspended in the county. That's up from 2,786 the previous year and 2,781 the year before that.

Middle school suspensions jumped from 998 to 1,160.

Although some Howard elementary and high schools reported increases, on the middle school level the increases were the most severe:

There were 223 fights in middle school in the 1999-2000 school year; last school year there were 309.

In 1999-2000, there were seven suspensions for drug use or possession. Last school year there were 12. In that same time frame, drug distribution increased from one incident to six.

Three middle school children were suspended for cutting school in 1999-2000. Last year, 11 were.

"The drugs, that is a significant increase there," Haskins said. "And we usually don't have middle school kids cutting school. I can't explain to you why that occurred."

Patrick Montesano, vice president for Education Reform Programs at the Academy for Educational Development in New York, said middle school is a uniquely difficult time for children. And it is also a difficult time for middle school teachers.

Teachers must keep children engaged academically, but allow for more moments of fun and freedom than are necessary in later years. They have to simultaneously nurture their charges, while making them feel independent. They have to be able to tolerate some levels of "acting out" and disruption, but make clear their undeniable authority.

Schools that keep suspensions to a minimum during the middle years often have experienced, well-trained staff who are particularly equipped to handle adolescents, Montesano said. And the best have teachers who genuinely like children in that age group.

"These are schools who have managed to tap that growth and that energy in very positive ways and are not scared off by the sometimes chaotic presentation of that energy," Montesano said.

Barbara Hoffmann, principal of Burleigh Manor Middle School in Ellicott City, said her staff does a good job with middle-schoolers, particularly because most have been working with teens and 'tweens for many years.

"We try to keep a lid on things," Hoffmann said. "But I do suspend kids. There are times when you have to say, `You're not listening. You're not doing what you're supposed to be doing. Then you have to leave the building.' I know that sounds harsh. But sometimes, it's very necessary."

Burleigh Manor had the lowest number of suspensions, 11, although that was up from four the previous year. Harper's Choice Middle in Columbia, with 168 suspensions, had the most.

"Some principals do suspend more than others," Hoffmann said. "That's another piece of it. But to compare numbers at schools is comparing apples and oranges. Every one of us is different and every one of us is on a different growth curve in terms of what our school is running on. I think the climate here is one that we are here for a purpose and we talk about that quite often. You have to build that kind of climate up slowly."

Howard school officials use the "disruptive behavior" report to monitor trends and recognize which schools might need more help. The report also tells them whether policies are working, such as zero-tolerance programs or "No Fight Zones" instituted at some schools.

But the report often ends up being a way for some parents or community members to quickly label "good" schools or "bad" schools, based on high or low numbers of suspensions.

"The idea that you can look at a suspension report and say, `This must be a school full of bad kids' is totally erroneous," said Doug Breunlin, director of the Peaceable Schools Program at Northwestern University. "Although people may naively look at the report and assume that."

Breunlin, who created an alternative-to-suspension program at a suburban Chicago high school, said research shows that it is often the leadership and environment in the school - not the pupils - that contribute to a high number of suspensions.

"Some schools have a really tough disciplinarian in charge," Breunlin said. "Other schools have a [philosophy of], `Well, kids make mistakes, and we have to give them other alternatives to handle situations.' It's the culture of discipline in the school."

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