Discipline's Cost

Thousands of Md. students are suspended each year, often those who most need to be in class

Sun Special Report

May 11, 2008|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

Tens of thousands of students are being suspended in Maryland for relatively minor infractions each year, the result of zero-tolerance discipline policies that critics say are harming some of the most vulnerable children.

One in 11 students in the state was suspended last year - enough to fill every seat in Anne Arundel County's public schools. The rates were much higher for African-Americans, special-education students and boys - who were twice as likely as girls to be sent home.

"What we see is that suspension and expulsion are overused and actually push kids who need education the most out of school," said Jane Sundius at the Open Society Institute, a nonprofit that has studied suspensions and expulsions in Baltimore schools .

The rate of suspensions in Maryland has risen over the past 15 years, as school systems responded with stricter discipline codes to rising violence in their communities and the fear fanned by the shooting deaths at Columbine High School in 1999. Many administrators believe a no-nonsense approach to misbehavior is needed to keep schools safe and ensure a good environment for learning.

But those policies have led to widespread use of suspensions for a myriad of less serious offenses - from poor attendance to insubordination. The consequences have been devastating for some children who fall behind academically or fail to get help to improve their behavior, according to parents and some superintendents who are calling for change.

National research has shown that students suspended multiple times are more apt to drop out or commit crimes. A study released Thursday showed that Baltimore teens who had been murdered or hurt by gunfire were likely to have been suspended at least twice and had a history of truancy.

But there are consequences even for high-achieving students who are put out of school for a week or two. They may struggle to keep their grades up and find their chances of getting into college compromised.

Suspension rates and punishments vary widely in the state.

Baltimore County's rate has doubled to 12.4 percent, about the same as Baltimore City's, while Howard County sends home only 4 percent.

But overall, the threshold for suspension has dropped sharply. Even kindergartners and preschoolers are suspended each year. In nearly every district, truancy is grounds for suspension.

Last year, a seventh-grade boy in Baltimore County was suspended twice for minor infractions, including giving what he believed was a playful slap, called a birthday lick, to the arm of another student, his mother said. When he later threw a cut-up tennis ball into the back of the head of a classmate, without injuring anyone, he was sent to an alternative school for 45 school days.

"I think this whole movement toward zero tolerance gave too many people license to say, `You're a disruptive force in my class. I don't want you here,'" said Eugene Patterson, a member of the Anne Arundel school board.

Local educators, national experts and even critics of zero-tolerance policies agree that students who bring a gun to school, attack a teacher, distribute drugs or are guilty of other serious violations should receive long suspensions or expulsions.

But there is an intensifying debate in Maryland over how to deal with students who commit less serious acts. Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City have changed course this school year and are encouraging principals to reduce suspensions for lesser offenses. They believe students who are suspended are more likely to fall behind and fail state tests.

Some educators who are trying new approaches to discipline think that students who do something wrong, particularly in elementary and middle schools, need to be taught to behave correctly. "We don't send a kid to the office because they fail a math test; we re-teach," said Sally Pelham, an assistant superintendent in Anne Arundel County.

A few school systems, including Anne Arundel's, are trying to reduce suspensions by giving teachers a better understanding of the children's culture.

The children who are most harmed by disciplinary policies are the most troubled students, Sundius said. They are suspended multiple times as a principal tries to rid a school of a discipline problem, but often no one tries to understand the cause of their misbehavior and fix the problem.

Signs that Deontray Brown was headed for trouble appeared in fourth grade in a city elementary school when he was suspended for throwing objects across the classroom in fits of frustration, his mother, Kenya Lee, said. She asked for counseling for her son, but he received 10 minutes a week, she said, because the social worker came to his school only one day a week and had to divide her time.

"I wanted help, but I couldn't get it from anyone," said Lee, who is a single mother.

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