St. Mary’s and other Maryland school districts have been urged by the state board of education to do away with any “zero tolerance” policies with regard to discipline.
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.
The school board Wednesday heard an update on the report and the probable upcoming changes to the state’s education law.
“I like the intent of this. In order for students to learn, they have to be in school,” board member Mary Washington said, adding, “Staff development will be needed.”
The state report focused on several changes, including the disproportionate number of suspensions for black students and students that receive special education. “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, must present a plan to reduce that gap in one year and eliminate it within three years, Charles Ridgell, director of student services, said.
The number of suspensions given to black students in St. Mary’s public schools dropped from 967 to 904 during the last two years, although the percentage of suspensions going to black students actually rose 2 points to 49 percent.
The number of suspensions in St. Mary’s schools generally track about half white and half black students, school officials said. 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, according to data.
St. Mary’s schools have worked to reduce the overall number of out-of-school suspensions from more than 3,000 in 2005 to about 1,800 last year.
“Even with increased enrollment, our suspensions have been going down,” Ridgell said.
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.
One-half or more of the suspensions annually come from nonviolent offenses such as insubordination, disrespect, classroom disruption or refusal to obey.
“That distinction between violent and nonviolent as we move ahead will be critical,” Ridgell said.
School board members and the schools’ lawyer, Ed O’Meally, took exception to some of the items now labeled as “nonviolent” in the state’s report, particularly offenses of making a threat to another student or teacher.
“One can seriously question whether that is a nonviolent offense,” O’Meally said.
He said that the new rules could impact classroom management, and that it was likely teachers unions had some concerns, as well. The report says that suspensions longer than 10 days should only be for “violent, dangerous conduct.”
“A lot of these kids who would have been taken out [of school] are going to be returned,” O’Meally said.
Superintendent Michael Martirano has 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 varying thresholds or expectations, leaving some discipline actions different from class to class or school to school, he said.
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.
The state report says schools should move away from punitive discipline models and toward 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.
“I fully embrace the intent of what the state school board is trying to do,” Martirano said. However, he said, there is limited space available to keep suspended students in school.
Currently, each school in the county has space set aside in-school interventions that is staffed.
There is also a trailer behind Leonardtown High School for the Interim Alternative Education Center, which is keeps some students in grades 7 to 12 with extended suspensions. And, Ridgell said, the school has an alternative education program that sends staff members to homes, libraries or other places to meet with students on extended suspensions.
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. Ridgell said that the St. Mary’s schools’ department of safety and security is already beginning to compile that data.