Sixteen students who were involved in serious incidents of misbehavior have been told they can never return to Baltimore public schools, even as city and state school board members debate the legality of denying students an education.
The city students, who are 16 or older, were permanently expelled last school year under a practice instituted last October by city schools chief Andres Alonso.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in Monday's editions on permanent expulsions in city schools misspelled the name of an attorney at Maryland Legal Aid. The attorney's name is Nicole Jassie.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.
Angry about the number of small fires that were being set in schools, Alonso told parents in a letter that he would permanently expel all students who were involved in arson or explosives. By the end of the year, he had kicked out 46 students between the ages of 9 and 18.
But over the summer, three of the expulsions were overturned when students, represented by Legal Aid attorneys, appealed. And in August, the Maryland State School Board began grappling with the expulsion issue.
In an opinion in a case from Dorchester County, the state board said it may propose regulations spelling out what responsibility school systems have to provide students an education even when they have committed a serious offense.
Nicole Jessie, a Legal Aid attorney, said she believes the Baltimore school system may have violated the Maryland Constitution when it told students they no longer had access to a public education. She points out that the state guarantees children a free and adequate education and makes school attendance mandatory up to the age of 16.
Alonso softened his stance, and is proposing a policy that would give expelled students younger than 16 an education in an alternative school and reinstate them after a year, provided they had good attendance and fulfill other requirements. But the policy would still allow students older than 16 to be shut out of schools.
The city schools have now reinstated 30 of the 46 students who were permanently expelled last year, according to Jonathan Brice, executive director of the safety and student support services office.
Jessie said the cases included a 13-year-old who had been egged on by fellow classmates to light a match and throw it into a bathroom trash can. Even though no one was injured, the building was not evacuated and the Fire Department was not called, she said, the middle school student was told never to return to school.
She said that contrasts with the way the criminal justice system works. Even teenagers who are convicted of serious crimes are allowed to go to a jail school. While a few school systems don't let a very small percentage of students back in their schools after serious incidents, most systems transfer students to alternative schools and then allow them to return.
Neil Duke, chairman of the city school board, said he would not predict the board's vote on a new policy. After strong opinions on both sides surfaced during a public hearing, Duke said the board will "continue to hear both sides of the debate to flesh out a position that adequately addresses the concerns on both sides."
Alonso has argued that when students set fires they endanger the lives of many students, and that the safety of all students is more important than the obligation to provide the student an education. And he points to the success of the hard-line approach: The number of arsons in schools dropped from 80 to 47 after his policy took effect.
Alonso told reporters recently that before he began permanently expelling students last year he read the regulations and realized that superintendents have broad latitude in discipline. He said he decided to use that authority. But the state board's decision begins to question just where the lines should be drawn. In the Dorchester case of a girl expelled for fighting, the ninth-grader was allowed back after a year, but she was given only a few homework assignments that weren't graded.
The state board supported the local school board's expulsion decision, but only by a 4-3 vote. Two members were absent. In the opinion, the board said "we view a policy of long-term suspensions without access to some education services as a serious public education policy issue. Students who receive the such punishment may very well feel the effects of that punishment throughout their whole lives."
The board concluded by announcing its intention to review the issue and seek public comment.
Despite the ruling, Duke said the city board would go ahead with its own policy. If the state board acts, he said, the city board would bring any of its policies into compliance.
Today, the city school board will hold a forum on the new policy from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in Room 301 at the central headquarters on North Avenue. The board will then take up the policy for the first time at a regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday.