Maryland school board gives preliminary approval to student-discipline reforms

The State Board of Education overwhelmingly approved regulations Tuesday intended to cut back on suspensions, keep students in class and create a less-punitive culture in public schools.

The changes place Maryland among states and school systems at the forefront of a national movement to rethink how students in trouble are punished and whether too many are suspended and expelled for offenses that could be handled in other ways.

But the Maryland action goes further than most initiatives, requiring that the state’s 24 school systems track data to ensure that minority and special education students are not unduly affected by suspensions, expulsions and other disciplinary measures. Disparities would have to be reduced within a year and eliminated within three years.

“It could well be the largest governmental unit that has made this strong a commitment to addressing racial disparities in discipline,” said Russell Skiba, a professor at Indiana University who does research on race and discipline. He called the action “a tremendous step forward.”

The new regulations require local school boards to adopt a rehabilitative philosophy toward discipline and teach students positive behavior. Zero-tolerance policies with automatic consequences would be banned, and long-term suspensions and expulsions are referred to as a last resort.

Board President James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr. said after Tuesday’s vote that Maryland’s main accomplishment was to bring student learning and disciplinary consequences into the same conversation, moving away from the get-tough climate that took hold in schools nationally after the Columbine massacre in Colorado in 1999.

“We have taken the best thinking from around the state and turned out something that is workable for our local districts to implement,” he said. The new regulations — adopted in a 10 to 0 vote with two board members absent — represent “a common-sense change.”

In a report citing data and research studies, the board said its intent was to meet the needs of all students. “No student comes to school ‘perfect’ academically or behaviorally,” the document says. “We do not throw away the imperfect or difficult children.”

The regulations approved Tuesday establish new definitions of suspension — what is short, what is long — and new timetables for rulings and appeals so that fewer students languish out of school. They require that when students are suspended, they must be provided with classwork and a school-based liaison to contact.

In broad terms, the changes are intended to cut back out-of-school suspensions for nonviolent offenses such as disrespect and insubordination and provide more fairness and support for students who are removed.

The board’s report said 54 percent of out-of-school suspensions in Maryland arise from nonviolent offenses. But it stopped short of stepping into the question of when schools may suspend students. “The superintendents and local boards asked that we leave the imposition of appropriate discipline in their hands,” the report says. “We agree.”

The effort to reform disciplinary procedures, unveiled in January, followed nearly two years of study and deliberation on student discipline, intensified by local cases including the 2011 suicide of a 15-year-old football player, Nick Stuban, in Virginia.

Over the months, panels of educators, advocates, students and others testified. Hundreds of written comments were submitted.

Not everyone embraced the outcome. Carl Roberts, executive director of the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland, said more analysis is needed and more input from principals and administrators. “You need to take your time and thoroughly analyze the data,” he said.

Other objections were voiced in written comments from educators and parents concerned about “good students” who endure classroom disruption and may benefit by the absence of classmates who get in trouble.

The board responded in its report, saying that suspended students are at risk of dropping out — and that ensuring graduation for all “adds to the health and wealth of the state of Maryland and improves the global competitiveness of this country.”

Several Maryland advocates lauded the changes but said they hoped for efforts to provide instruction for suspended students — even online teaching or Saturday school alternatives.

Still, the requirement that suspended students be given their schoolwork will make a “huge difference” in some parts of the state, said Nicole Joseph, a lawyer with the Maryland Disability Law Center.

Particularly on racial disparities, “Maryland’s proposal is on the cutting edge,” said Judith A. Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights group involved in discipline issues nationally.

With Tuesday’s vote, the discipline regulations are considered “published” but require a state review and a 30-day period for additional public comment. The board will then vote on final adoption.

The board has also asked that a best-practices work group be convened to discuss promising approaches. Said DeGraffenreidt: “We’re trying to avoid being prescriptive and build on the good work that is going on in a variety of school districts across the state.”

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