- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
St. Mary’s public school officials hope to continue a trend of fewer student suspensions, especially among minorities and special education students who are disproportionately punished in school.
The Maryland State Department of Education this summer approved new suspension rules that aim to dramatically reduce the time students spend out of school for discipline problems and eliminate a gap in the number of suspensions between minority students and their peers.
“Closing that gap, by improving student learning and performance, needs to be our highest priority,” the report states.
Local school systems, including St. Mary’s, have to present a plan to reduce that gap in one year and eliminate it within three years.
Scott Smith, director of secondary instruction, said county schools have worked to reduce the overall number of suspensions from more than 3,000 in 2005 to about 1,800 last year through a concerted effort. That work will continue in the coming years, he said.
The number of suspensions given to black students dropped from 967 to 904 over the last two years, although the percentage of suspensions going to black students actually rose 2 points to 49 percent.
Smith said that the number of suspensions generally track about half white and half black students. However, only about 20 percent of students in St. Mary’s public schools are black.
About 1 in 7 black students were suspended in the 2010-2011 school year versus 1 in 20 white students, Smith said.
“Some of these [suspensions] are left to the judgment of educators,” Superintendent Michael Martirano said this week. He said part of the plan to reduce suspensions will be to train school staff about when to dole out punishment for what he called subjective offenses.
Different teachers have thresholds or expectations that vary, leaving some discipline actions different from class to class or school to school, he said.
Charna Lacey, St. Mary’s schools diversity specialist, said teachers and school principals will focus on positive relationship building and teaching de-escalating strategies to help avoid turning disputes into full blown arguments or fights.
Many suspensions up to half annually come from so-called soft or non-violent offenses such as insubordination, disrespect, classroom disruption or refusal to obey, Smith said.
Those are the offenses Smith and assistant principals will focus on reducing using de-escalation, rewards for positive behavior and other techniques, he said.
Smith said home environments, especially those struggling financially, can create stress for students that in turn can translate to discipline problems in school.
The report says more than 30,000 students in Maryland, or a little more than half of those suspended, are put out of school for apparently non-violent conduct every year.
School administrators are urged to use discretion when determining a punishment, especially for out-of-school suspensions, the report states.
About 8 percent of all Maryland students were suspended in the 2010-2011 school year. Of those approximate 67,000 students who were suspended, 85 percent were given out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.
The state report says schools should move away from punitive discipline models and towards rehabilitative models. It touts the benefits of the Positive Behaviors and Intervention Supports program, which is in place in 745 schools across the state, including several in St. Mary’s County.
St. Mary’s schools moved away from using the term in-school suspension last year, instead calling it in-school intervention. Although students still spend the day in a specific room, the intervention requires students to work on lessons while a teacher is present.
Unlike in-school suspensions, the state does not require the school system to report the number of in-school interventions.
The report also addresses what it calls a “school-to-prison pipeline,” and will beginning next school year require for the first time school systems to report school arrest and referral data.
The state board of education began an examination and review of the issue of school discipline more than two years ago following the release of a state board opinion in an appeal involving the expulsion of a ninth-grade student for the majority of the school year, during which time the student received intermittent homework assignments but no follow-up, grading, or other interaction with school personnel.
About a third of comments on the new regulations requested from the education community in February suggested that by keeping students with discipline problems in school, the rest of the school would be unsafe and it would be more difficult for other students to learn. Other comments commended the regulations as long overdue. The public can comment on the regulations before they are published by going to the state education department’s website.
The Maryland State Board of Education plans to adopt new regulations regarding suspensions and discipline this fall, following the state review process and a 30-day public comment period. The report is available at www.marylandpublicschools.org/MSDE/stateboard/Student+Discipline+and+Long+Term+Suspensions.