School Suspensions Limited In Md.

Law Eliminates Suspension Just For Being Late Or Absent

July 01, 2009|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

Maryland public school officials can no longer suspend or expel students solely for being chronically late or absent under a new state law that takes effect today.

The legislation follows a long trend of rising suspensions in Maryland, which resulted from zero-tolerance policies imposed amid increasing violence in communities and high-profile shootings such as that at Columbine High School in 1999.

More than 16,500 students were suspended statewide in the 2007-2008 academic year for attendance-related reasons, nearly 10 percent of the total, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. Most of those cases also involved other infractions, and suspensions generally are an intervention of last resort, school officials said.

The new law "really puts into statute what had been practice at most of our schools," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman at the department, which supported the bill before the General Assembly. "Schools aren't in the habit of suspending for absenteeism alone."

Educators and lawmakers said that suspending students for not going to school was counterproductive and could be viewed as rewarding such behavior. They said schools should instead try to address underlying causes, such as problems at home, and some noted that drop-out rates correlate with incarceration rates, especially among blacks.

"It doesn't make sense to suspend a child who is already out of school," said state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat and sponsor of the bill. "We should be trying to help our children as opposed to pushing them out the door and pushing them toward criminal behavior."

Jane Sundius, director of education and youth development at the Open Society Institute, said suspension is not only an ineffective disciplinary approach but also hinders entire classrooms because teachers must devote more attention to help the returning student catch up.

In Maryland, a principal may suspend a student for up to 10 days; a longer suspension or expulsion can be made by the local superintendent of schools at the principal's request. A student can appeal to the local board of education.

The Public School Superintendents' Association originally opposed the legislation, saying that suspensions are sometimes appropriate because they send a message to parents that they need to work with the school to resolve chronic absenteeism. But the group withdrew its opposition when the bill was amended to allow in-school suspensions, such as after-school detention, for attendance-related offenses.

Deborah Bittner, principal at Catonsville High School, said she agrees with the law's intent and that she would not suspend a student for truancy only.

"We don't want to send them away," she said. "We try to work with the families to encourage students to come to school on time and be present."

Other laws that take effect today:

* Exempts domestic partners, including same-sex couples, who jointly own homes from inheritance taxes.

* Allows the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to negotiate for service fees from nonmembers as part of the contract voted on by all employees.

* Requires police to report on SWAT team activities after a drug raid last summer on the home of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo led to the shooting of his dogs.

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