Rule-breakers, beware: Anne Arundel County school officials are revamping the way they deal with students who misbehave.
After spending the better part of this school year making changes to raise student achievement, Superintendent Eric J. Smith told the school board last night that he is turning his attention to creating a "safe and orderly environment."
Changes will include consistent enforcement of discipline in county schools, prescribing punishments aimed at discouraging repeat offenses, and offering more support for students who break the rules.
"What we seem to have now is a throwaway system," said Jose Torres, director of student services, who heads a task force on student conduct. "Does it makes sense, for kids who have attendance problems, to expel them?"
Board members praised the group's efforts, but said they were concerned about how much the changes would cost and whether students would think the administration was becoming more lenient.
"I really hope this program will help those kids," said student board member Ashley Nathanson. "It hurts me to have to sit in expulsion hearings. It's so heart-wrenching."
In March, the group of educators and community members began meeting to look at such things as expulsion data and ambiguous wording in the county's student code of conduct.
Between 400 and 500 students are given 10-day suspensions or expelled each year, according to school system data, for offenses ranging from disrupting a classroom to using a weapon against another person in school.
The task force reported yesterday that there aren't enough support programs are available to justify bringing students who have been suspended or expelled back into the fold. It also has found that discipline is administered unevenly across the county, and that the 6-year-old code of conduct needs to be rewritten. The code also needs to provide different guidelines for elementary and secondary school students, the group found.
By the end of the summer, the group plans to have completed a new code of conduct designed to give teachers and principals clearer direction about appropriate punishments.
For example, students who deface school property would be required to remove the graffiti, Torres said. The current code prescribes penalties ranging from detention to police notification.
Current penalties for missing school include being excluded from class, suspended or expelled.
Under the new code, students might be given afternoon detention or Saturday school.
"In other words, the consequence [of truancy] is more schooling, rather than less schooling," Torres said.
But it's not all about punishment, officials said.
"If you could retain these kids in alternative settings, instead of sending them home for 10 days, where they do nothing, then why not?" said Sam Georgiou, a parent member of the task force.
The group is looking for ways to increase the effectiveness of the county's two underused alternative schools, Mary Moss Academy in Crownsville for high school students and the Learning Center in Annapolis for middle school pupils.
About 140 students attend those schools for varying periods of time, earning the right to return to their home schools. The two centers could accommodate about 100 more.
The alternative schools provide academic instruction in a calmer atmosphere - classes of 10 or fewer students - but not much support to help students return to their regular schools, Torres said.
Starting in the fall, officials said, more students will be assigned to the centers, which will be filled to capacity. The centers will provide counseling and classes to improve students' behavior and academic skills, and programs targeting deficiencies in basic reading and math.
Although some of the changes will be made this summer and fall, the task force also is working on long-term solutions. One plan is to have alternative-education programs in satellite campuses or embedded within regular schools.
"We want to be able to create second chances for kids," Torres said.