Student suspensions, expulsions soar

Typical behavior by Maryland youths being `criminalized,' UM researcher says

October 18, 2007|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun Reporter

School suspensions and expulsions have risen significantly in Maryland, with African-Americans, boys and special education students more likely to be disciplined, a University of Maryland researcher said yesterday.

Peter Leone criticized the rising suspension rates, saying students who are suspended many times are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.

"When kids are suspended from school, what do you think they are doing?" Leone said. Students are more likely to get into trouble when they are left at home alone than when they are in school, Leone said at a forum sponsored by the Open Society Institute, a nonprofit that has funded projects in Baltimore to address urban problems.

The number of suspensions in Maryland from 1995 to 2003 rose much more rapidly than the number of students, according to figures distributed yesterday.

8.7% suspended

During the 2005-2006 school year, 8.7 percent of students in the state were suspended at some point.

"The odds that an African-American student will be suspended is two and a half times the odds of a white student being suspended," Leone said.

Leone, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, has worked with colleagues over the past several years to analyze suspensions and expulsions.

Suspensions have risen across the nation, largely because of zero-tolerance policies aimed at punishing students who bring weapons and drugs to school. But weapons violations account for a small portion of the suspensions each year, Leone said, and the policies have spread to many other acts of misbehavior.

Leone said his niece, an autistic girl who blurted out that she wanted to kill her teacher, was referred to juvenile services for the outburst, although she did not mean what she said. Those kinds of incidents, he said, are disconnecting students from their schools and communities, he said.

In Maryland each year, dozens of kindergartners are suspended, and Leone said that raises questions about what educators hope to teach children at that age.

"We have begun to criminalize behavior that is typical," he said.

In a study of 555 teenagers in the juvenile justice system, researchers found that about 85 percent had been suspended and that more than 50 percent had been expelled.

Alternatives

Schools have alternatives to suspensions, Leone said.

The forum drew about 40 education and juvenile policy experts, some of whom said programs that help teach children positive behavior are needed.

The state Department of Education has been encouraging school systems to try to reduce suspensions by using a program that trains teachers to handle discipline differently and has school administrators focus attention primarily on students whose behavior is worst.

Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso, disturbed by the high number of suspensions in Baltimore, is requiring principals to get his permission to suspend students for more than five days.

The General Assembly has passed a law that would require elementary schools to adopt programs to reduce suspensions if rates rise above a certain level.

Open Society has provided money to put positive-behavior programs in some city schools and issued a policy brief on the subject at the meeting yesterday.

liz.bowie@baltimoresun.com

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