Criticize state school board over suspensions


The groups want the panel to act more quickly to address inequities between districts

May 30, 2011|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

Two advocacy groups are criticizing the state school board for failing to act more quickly to address high suspension rates and inequities in the way students are disciplined from one district to another.

In a letter to the school board, the Open Society Institute-Baltimore and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland expressed "extreme concern about the continuing high, and disproportionate, levels of suspensions of students in Maryland public schools and the lack of significant progress in acting upon this situation."

The groups are calling on the state board to develop a system of sanctions for school districts "that rush to suspend students for non-violent, first-time infractions" that in other districts would require nothing more than a conference with parents.

Both groups have worked over the past several years to reduce suspension levels in schools — in some districts as many as one in three children are suspended each year — and believe that school system policies are too harsh and sometimes derail a student's education.

"This reflects a long period trying to get the state board to focus on this issue in a nontrivial and meaningful way," said Jane Sundius at the Open Society Institute.

Advocates say the board is mostly looking at making minor changes to existing policies rather than broad changes.

"Suspension policies continue to be a strong interest area" for the state board and the Maryland State Department of Education, said William Reinhard, a spokesman. The board is expected to take up the issue at its June meeting, he said.

In April, the board proposed a policy that would require school districts to allow students who have appealed a suspension to return to the classroom after they had served the suspension. In a Dorchester County case, heard by the state school board last year, a ninth-grade girl was kept out of school for nearly a year without access to educational services.

The board also has not addressed some zero-tolerance policies of school systems, examples of which have come to light in the past month. In Talbot County, an Easton High student was suspended and arrested for having a penknife in his lacrosse bag that he used for cutting strings on the stick to repair it. In Anne Arundel County, a female student was suspended and arrested for carrying pepper spray for protection on her walk to school.

"I think it is the state's role to ensure equity and fairness and the statistics show a pattern of disproportionality that should raise concerns. The local systems may need some help understanding what works," said Bebe Verdery, education director of the ACLU of Maryland. State statistics show that African-American students and boys receive a disproportionate number of suspensions in nearly every school system in the state.

The letter asks the state board to develop a protocol for monitoring school system data so that inequities are identified. The groups also want districts to keep track of how often students are arrested by police on school property for things that are legal on a public street.

In Anne Arundel County, for instance, the girl had pepper spray in her pocketbook, which is legal until she walked onto school property. Because the school system classifies pepper spray as a weapon, the police referred her to juvenile services. In other cases, students with penknives have been handcuffed and taken to the police station, even though it is legal to carry a penknife when not on school property.

The ACLU and Open Society Institute also ask that the state school board require districts with higher-than-average suspension rates to develop plans to reduce the rates.

"Most distressing to me," Sundius said, "is that there is compelling evidence that suspensions are used inequitably across the state, so the children in one jurisdiction have a much greater chance of being suspended than a child in another jurisdiction."

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