High school suspensions plummet in Montgomery, falling nearly 37 percent

High school suspensions in Montgomery County plummeted nearly 37 percent in the past school year as the district made concerted efforts to use alternatives to out-of-school punishment and reduce racial disparities in discipline.

Newly released figures show that suspensions in the county’s 25 high schools dropped from 2,263 in the 2012-2013 school year to 1,432 during the school year that ended in June. Suspensions involving black and Hispanic students fell by more than 600, but the district’s new figures show that while the gap has narrowed, suspensions of minority students continue to occur in disproportionate numbers.

“We’ve shown we can make real progress,” Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said, noting that the decline reflects the district’s commitment to keeping students in schools and finding multiple ways to deal with discipline issues. “In no way, shape or form are we saying we are done.”

Starr acknowledged that the data indicate that gaps involving such factors as race and special education status persist: “We have disproportionality. Absolutely unacceptable.”

The reduction in suspensions comes as state and federal officials have been pressing the nation’s school districts to rethink how they deal with students who get in trouble.

The Maryland State Board of Education adopted sweeping changes in discipline regulations in January, following a four-year effort intended to increase fairness and keep more students in school and on track to graduate. In the same month, Obama administration officials issued the first federal guidelines on school discipline, which similarly were intended to keep more students in class, avoid unnecessary out-of-school suspensions and reduce racial disparities, which are not uncommon.

Research shows that suspensions are linked to a greater risk of academic failure, higher drop-out rates and increased likelihood of involvement with the juvenile justice system. Many advocates and experts say that in the case of minor offenses, students need to learn about appropriate behavior and continue with their class work in school.

In Montgomery — Maryland’s largest school system, with more than 151,000 students — suspension rates are low. State figures for 2012-2013, for example, show that 2.4 percent of the county’s K-12 students were suspended at least once that year, less than half the statewide rate of 5.1 percent.

Last year’s improvement in Montgomery followed a marked decline in K-12 suspensions in recent years. Last year, the reduction included a drop by nearly 50 percent in discretionary suspensions among high school students. Such suspensions are applied for such offenses as disrespect and insubordination.

State officials and advocates say other consequences — such as behavioral contracts, peer mediation, restitution, detention and community service — can be more appropriate than discretionary suspensions.

Montgomery administrators have taken varied approaches in looking beyond suspension. Last year’s efforts go back to the beginning of the school year, when Starr asked principals to focus on the issue, invoking the school-to-prison pipeline that links trouble at school to judicial involvement. Starr did not prescribe a method.

“We wanted every school to do it in a way that works for them,” Starr said, adding that he has since seen “some really powerful approaches.”

The goal was to keep students in school when possible, reserving suspensions for serious incidents or as a last resort, said Christopher Garran, associate superintendent for high schools.

“If we want our students more engaged, the starting point is they have to be at school,” Garran said. “If the kids aren’t there, then everything else you’re trying to do is not going to work.”

He said his office reviewed monthly suspension numbers with schools and had collaborative conversations about what administrators were doing and what seemed to work best, including proactive approaches.

At Northwood High School, the principal has emphasized de-escalation of conflicts. At Col. Zadok Magruder High School, officials changed the lunch period, improving the school climate. Magruder had the county’s greatest decline in suspensions, from 126 in 2012-2013 to 39 last year.

At John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring — where suspensions fell to 55 last year, from 118 a year earlier — Principal Joe Rubens credited strong instruction and motivational strategies, among other efforts.

He said that suspensions are still necessary and that safety is a priority but that consequences vary for less-serious misconduct.

“We still hold kids accountable when they misbehave,” Rubens said, “but we have a renewed focus on community service and student reflections.”

The newly released figures show that the number of out-of-school suspensions fell at 23 of the system’s 25 schools and stayed level at one school.

The only increase was at Clarksburg High School, and schools officials said it was difficult to determine what happened there. They plan to work closely with the school’s new principal, who started in July.

Last school year, 769 suspensions involved African American students, down from 1,175 a year earlier. Suspensions of Hispanic students dropped to 367, from 611.

“We’ve seen some promising practices,” Starr said of the last year’s efforts and results. “Now let’s go deeper.”

Daniel J. Losen, a researcher who studies disparities in suspension, said Montgomery’s numbers show a narrowing of the suspension gap between black and white high school students. In 2012, for example, the rate of suspensions per 100 students was 12.1 for blacks and 2.4 for whites. It narrowed last year to 7.6 for blacks and 1.3 for whites, he said.

For Hispanics, suspensions per 100 students fell from 5.8 in 2012 to 3.2 last year. For Asian Americans, suspensions per 100 students fell from 1.3 in 2012 to 0.8 last year. The gap narrowed between students with and without disabilities. Suspensions per 100 students with disabilities went from 12.3 to 6.9 during the same two-year period.

“It’s still a problem, but they’ve made progress,” Losen said. “Whatever they are doing, if they continue to do it, it could help a lot.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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