Suspensions discouraged, educators say

Unions say officials fear `dangerous' designation

Aspect of No Child Left Behind

City schools head insists no such directive exists

October 24, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials are suspending fewer disruptive students to keep schools from being labeled "persistently dangerous" under the federal No Child Left Behind law, some city teachers and principals charge.

"They don't want to suspend people," said Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. "But they have that backward. The children need to be disciplined. That's what makes the school safe."

With 15 city schools placed on probation this summer and told they're one year away from the "dangerous" label - which would give parents at those schools the right to transfer their children to other schools - some principals and teachers say they're being pressured to avoid removing disruptive youngsters from school. They contend that might be one reason for the spate of violence and fires in schools this year.

Under the federal law, schools are classified as persistently dangerous based not on how many assaults or fires occur within their walls, but on the number of students suspended for such violent acts.

City and state school officials insist that they are not encouraging principals to bend their suspension policies to satisfy the federal law.

But officials with the labor unions that represent teachers and principals said Maryland's interpretation of No Child Left Behind has created an environment in city schools in which students know they can get away with offenses because administrators are under pressure to keep discipline numbers low.

The pressure on administrators may be higher in Baltimore than elsewhere in Maryland because the city has the only schools in the state that have been deemed to have an unacceptable level of violent offenses. By contrast, elsewhere in the country, some urban districts far larger than Baltimore do not have as many schools bearing the "dangerous" label because their states use more rigid criteria.

At least two of the 15 city schools on the state's watch list have been disrupted by student-set fires this school year, and one was the site of a large brawl last week that police broke up using pepper spray.

About a dozen schools not on the list also have been disrupted by minor fires, and serious incidents occurred recently at two of those schools. Two teenagers were wounded in a shooting outside Thurgood Marshall High on Thursday, and a gun was fired near students as they stood outside Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy during a fire evacuation last month.

Some administrators contend that the pressure not to remove disruptive students is coming from the school system's leadership.

"My principals have been told in a roundabout way that if a large number of suspensions come out of their schools, there's a possibility they could be rated `unsatisfactory,' or receive some type of letter of reprimand," said Jimmy Gittings, president of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association.

But city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland denied that her administration has issued such a directive.

"Just the opposite," she said. "I had this very conversation with a number of staff members yesterday that, regardless of [the persistently dangerous label], we need to have consequences for the young people who are starting these fires or disrupting the school day.

"If that means [using] suspensions or expulsions, absolutely we want to extend those consequences."

Copeland said some school leaders may have gotten a wrong impression from their supervisors. School officials have said that some principals might have unknowingly inflated their numbers by overzealously reporting fights or other physical contact as violent assaults.

Copeland said she will make sure principals understand that they should always suspend or expel students for violent offenses.

To comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, the Maryland State Department of Education collects data on long-term suspensions and expulsions that stem from nine types of offense - including arson, assault and bringing a weapon to school.

Under Maryland's interpretation of the law, schools are classified as persistently dangerous based not on the number of assaults or arson fires, but on the number of students suspended for such acts.

The law gives parents the option of transferring their children out of schools deemed unsafe. In Maryland, such a school is defined as one that reports, for three years in a row, a combined suspension-and-expulsion rate of 2.5 percent or higher of its enrollment. After two years of poor records, schools are placed on probation.

Sixteen city schools were put on probation in August. One school, Lakeland Elementary/Middle, was removed from the list recently after the state examined revised data.

State education officials said the law was not intended to scare principals into not suspending or expelling students.

"The message should not be that you shouldn't be looking at suspensions and expulsions for fear of being designated," said JoAnne L. Carter, assistant state superintendent for student and school services.

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