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Maryland approves new school discipline regulations

Resource type: News

The Washington Post | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Donna St. George, Tuesday, January 28

Maryland education leaders approved the most sweeping changes in decades to state discipline policies Tuesday morning, culminating a four-year effort intended to reform approaches to student punishment, increase time in school and end racial disparities in suspensions.

The Maryland State Board of Education’s action — approved in a 10-0 vote with one abstention and one member absent — comes at a time when school officials nationally are reconsidering their disciplinary measures. Three weeks ago, Obama administration officials called for a broad rethinking of student discipline and issued the first set of federal discipline guidelines for the nation’s schools.

The new regulations in Maryland do not ban principals from imposing suspensions but establish a more rehabilitative philosophy in schools and reserve the harshest penalties for the most severe offenses. They also expedite appeals, add educational services for suspended students and require plans to eliminate disparities.

Local school boards in Maryland will have until next fall to revise their discipline policies to come in line with the new regulations. They are allowed to choose their own approaches to discipline, but the state has encouraged school systems to evaluate discipline on a case-by-case basis and to abandon zero-tolerance policies. The state also recommends that schools reduce the number of suspensions for minor missteps.

“I think school systems want to engage in this work,” said board President Charlene M Dukes. “I believe they understand how important it is to keep students in school engaged in a positive way with the academic and educational environment.”

Board members say school safety remains a priority as they strive to keep students in school and help them learn from mistakes. But many teachers say the new regulations don’t address the root causes of misbehavior or provide funding to support the change. They worry that a softer approach could lead to an increase in disruptive students in class.

“We would like students to be in school, but at the same time if you have a student who is disrupting other students, you have to do something about it,” said Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, which represents 71,000 educators.

The Maryland board has issued two major reports that describe the toll of suspension, which falls hardest on minorities and students with disabilities. More than 42,000 students were suspended or expelled statewide last school year — placing them at greater risk for academic failure, dropping out and involvement in the juvenile justice system, experts say.

“We wanted to change the conversation,” said Board Member James R. DeGraffenreidt Jr. Already, he said, the state’s attention has influenced schools: Maryland’s suspension rate dropped from 7 percent in 2010 to 5.1 percent last year. “I don’t think it’s by accident,” he said.

Nationally, researchers and advocates who track discipline say Maryland is among a handful of states and large school districts at the forefront of a growing movement to use suspension less frequently.

“Maryland is leading the way on the state level,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization. “The regulations will be a model for other states about how to put common sense back into discipline.”

For many experts, the state’s effort to tackle racial disparities stands out. Maryland’s suspension rate is 8.7 percent for African American students and about 3 percent for both their white and Hispanic peers, according to an analysis of state data by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“I’m thrilled to see Maryland take the initiative,” said Dan Losen, director of the center. “It’s a major step in the right direction.”

Maryland’s board took up discipline in 2009 amid concerns about a case in Dorchester County involving a student who was expelled and spent much of ninth grade with little school contact and no instruction.

The Maryland board turned its attention to “zero tolerance” policies in 2011, citing the suicide of a 15-year-old football player who took his life after a lengthy removal from school in neighboring Virginia. His case was profiled by The Washington Post and spurred an array of discipline changes in Fairfax County.

Later, a case from Talbot County came before the Maryland board on appeal.

Two high school lacrosse players were suspended in 2011 for carrying items in their gear bags that they said they used to fix their equipment: One student had a pocket knife and a Leatherman, and the other a lighter. Their coach later said he had not known the items were a problem.

In a rare reversal of student punishment in 2012, the board threw the suspensions out, saying that knives and lighters don’t belong at school, but “this case is about context and about the appropriate exercise of discretion.”

The regulations require local school boards to adopt policies that allow for discretion, keep students connected to school and “reflect a philosophy based on the goals of fostering, teaching and acknowledging positive behavior.” The policies must “explain why and how long-term suspensions or expulsions are a last resort option.”

Perhaps reflecting anxieties about school security in the wake of the December 2012 mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Maryland has had a spate of recent discipline cases that appear to be at odds with the board’s new regulations. The cases came amid a heightened sensitivity about guns in schools nationwide.

Last January, a 6-year-old in Montgomery County was suspended for pointing his finger like a gun. Soon afterward, a second-grader in Anne Arundel County was suspended when he chewed his Pop-Tart-like pastry into the shape of a gun. In May, a kindergartner in Calvert County was suspended for bringing a Cowboy-style cap gun on his school bus.

The new regulations would not prevent such suspensions explicitly. The idea was not to be overly prescriptive but to reset broader thinking, DeGraffenreidt said: “We have not said, ‘Don’t suspend.’ We have said, ‘You have to document it and explain it.’ ”

The state plans to release reports on best practices and codes of conduct.

As the board deliberated and heard testimony from a range of panelists during the past several years, hundreds of public comments have poured in, including many that were critical of the developing guidelines. As one teacher wrote in 2012: “You propose these ridiculous regulations without having any idea how they would work in, say, a challenging middle school population. You just leave all the fallout to the teachers.”

The board’s proposed regulations have been revised twice.

Weller, of the teachers union, said change is needed but not without funds for professional training, student programs or other supports.

“You don’t need a lot of resources to suspend a child,” Weller said. “You do need resources to modify a behavior.”

Superintendents support the regulations passed Tuesday, said Carl Roberts, executive director of the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland. “They believe they still have the autonomy at the local level to make wise decisions associated with student and staff safety and security,” he said.

In some areas of the state, changes already are underway.

In Prince George’s County, Daryl Williams, chief of student services, said the school system has worked with state officials and has incorporated similar thinking into its practices and code of conduct, working to reduce expulsions and encourage alternatives to out-of-school suspension. He said the county also has done away with zero-tolerance policies.

“The whole idea is that we don’t want to lose that instructional time that is so vital to student success,” Williams said.

Montgomery County is focused on reducing suspensions and racial disparities and will continue to do so, said Chrisandra Richardson, an associate superintendent. “We’re not there yet, but over time suspensions have been greatly reduced,” she said.

The regulations require changes including a school liaison for suspended students. Principals would be given greater discretion on the most severe offenses, Richardson said, so that it will not be “one size fits all for every situation.”

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