School suspensions drop

CEO Alonso urged applying penalty only for violence

August 05, 2008|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

Baltimore school officials reported yesterday that suspensions dropped significantly last academic year after city schools chief Andres Alonso discouraged principals from sending students home for nonviolent offenses.

The number of suspensions fell by more than 2,000 last year, from 16,752 the year before to 14,649, according to preliminary data presented at a hearing of the City Council's Education Committee.

Suspensions had been declining for three years until 2006-2007, when there was an uptick. In 2003-2004, there were 26,295 incidents of suspension in Baltimore schools.

The vast majority of last year's suspensions - 12,853 - were short-term, for five days or fewer. Short-term suspensions also accounted for the majority of the decline from the prior year.

At Alonso's request, the school board changed the definition of a long-term suspension last fall so that principals need to get approval from the central office before suspending a child for more than five days, rather than 10.

Because students who are suspended for prolonged periods are more likely to drop out of school and become involved in violence, Alonso says multiple people should be involved in a decision that can profoundly affect a child's life.

Still, because long-term suspensions typically come in response to violence, the number stayed relatively steady. There were 1,796 long-term suspensions recommended last year, compared with 1,827 in 2006-2007, when the definition of a long-term suspension was twice as long.

Alonso has urged principals to use common sense in suspending students for truancy, talking back and other nonviolent offenses that historically have triggered short-term suspensions. But he has said schools must have zero tolerance for violence.

After that directive, rumors were rampant that schools were not supposed to be suspending students at all. Alonso said yesterday that his staff investigated many complaints that schools were not reporting violent incidents, and all of them were unfounded.

Opening preparations

Yesterday's hearing was the first of two called by Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to review preparations for the opening of school Aug. 25.

Jonathan Brice, the system's executive director of student services, said principals have reported that they plan to increase alternatives to suspension in the coming year because they now have authority to direct spending there.

Fifty percent of schools said they will offer in-school suspension, compared with 41 percent last year. There is also an increase in the number of schools planning to hold after-school detention and Saturday classes and offer incentives for positive behavior.

The system has adopted a new code of conduct outlining what sanctions are appropriate for specific offenses. Brice said assistant principals will be trained to apply the code before classes begin, and students will have conduct lessons during the first three weeks of school.

Also at the hearing, the system's chief operating officer, Keith Scroggins, reported on $34 million worth of renovation work being done this summer: expanding 26 elementary schools that will also serve middle-school students, converting Benjamin Franklin Junior High into a high school, and opening six new middle/high schools and four new alternative schools.

School at HQ

One of the new alternative schools, designed to serve students on long-term suspension and expulsion, will be inside the system's North Avenue headquarters.

Scroggins said construction should be complete by Aug. 18, a week before school starts.

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