In Maryland, discipline reform aims to limit students’ suspension from school

Maryland education leaders unveiled a major reform effort Tuesday that could largely end the use of school suspensions for nonviolent offenses and require that the state’s 24 districts create plans to address racial disparities in discipline.

Saying thousands of students lose time in class for nonviolent offenses and that punishment falls hardest on minorities and special-education students, James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr., president of the Maryland State Board of Education, presented the outlines of regulatory changes at a board meeting. Formal proposals will be presented in February.

One major concern, he said, is how many students are removed from school for offenses that do not harm others and could be handled another way. He cited data that shows more than half of out-of-school suspensions in Maryland result from infractions such as disrespect, insubordination, failure to follow school rules and cellphone violations.

Although there is no argument about removing students for violence, DeGraffenreidt said, students generally need to be in class. “There is a very strong correlation . . . between being in class and student achievement,” he said, also citing risks of dropout and juvenile justice involvement.

State data also show more than half of suspensions involve African American students, he said. “We think this relates to not only the achievement of individual students but the achievement gap itself,” he said.

The state board would prefer to leave specific methods of reducing disparities and suspensions to local school officials, he said, but new regulations will clearly mean a shift in practices across the state.

Among regulatory changes would be a requirement that school systems submit detailed plans to reduce — and over three years eliminate — disparities in suspension rates by race and special-education status.

Districts would also keep more detailed data on suspensions and take corrective action if needed.

For students who get suspended, the decision-making process would be speedier, with a proposed 10-day turnaround for rulings. In nonviolent cases, students would be sent back to school if the process were to drag on.

As part of its rethinking, the board would revise definitions. Short-term suspensions would be three days or less, while long-term suspensions would last up to 10 days. Beyond that, suspensions would be called “extended.”

The state proposes to end expulsions, except for firearms violations.

Other board members echoed DeGraffenreidt’s concerns, with Kate Walsh citing the case of a lacrosse player on the Eastern Shore who was ousted from school for carrying a penknife in his gearbag, which he said he had used to repair his sticks.

“We understand the need for discipline,” said board member Donna Hill Staton, adding that the concern is whether “the punishment fits the crime.”

In February, the board will release a detailed report laying out its view of problems with school discipline and its suggested regulatory changes. It will invite public comment afterward.

The proposed reforms come after several high-profile suspension cases. One involved a teen out of school a year for fighting in Maryland, DeGraffenreidt said.

Another came from neighboring Virginia, where a 15-year-old football player who admitted to buying one capsule of a legal drug committed suicide after his suspension went on for seven weeks and ended with a forced school transfer. His story was profiled in The Washington Post and touched off policy changes in Fairfax County.

Advocates lauded Maryland’s new direction.

“I thought it was great they made clear that exclusion from school is not appropriate for all but the most violent offenses,” said Nicole Joseph, a lawyer with the Maryland Disability Law Center.

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