Maryland weighs speeding up school disciplinary process

In Montgomery County, a 14-year-old in trouble for fighting was out of class for almost four weeks before he received a ruling on whether he would be expelled.

In Prince George’s County, a 17-year-old special education student idled at home for nearly a month without a disciplinary ruling, and then was assigned to an alternative school as he waited three more weeks. When a hearing was finally held, he was returned to his original school the next day.

These and other accounts of life in academic limbo — from lawyers involved — are in the spotlight as the Maryland State Board of Education considers a measure to speed up disciplinary decision-making in the state’s 24 school systems.

Discipline issues became a board focus after the January suicide of a student-athlete in Virginia. Nick Stuban, 15, was out of class for seven weeks in Fairfax County and transferred to a different high school amid a disciplinary process that his parents say contributed to his despair.

Eyeing that case and others, Maryland has proposed guidelines that ask for decisions in serious discipline cases within 10 days. Appeals would be handled according to a timeline.

Disciplinary actions that drag on “can have devastating effects on some children,” said board member Madhu Sidhu. Campus safety is a priority, but “we should not have children just staying at home and watching television over a lengthy period.”

The board’s proposed 10-day time frame is at odds with how some cases are handled in Montgomery and Prince George’s. Montgomery has told the board that the idea is “very unrealistic,” warning against a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Most school districts in Maryland said they could abide by the proposal, said Carl Roberts, executive director of the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland, who surveyed each system.

“Most of us already do it; we do it in different ways, but we do it,” said Craig Cummings, coordinator of alternative education and pupil personnel in Howard County, who was part of a state-organized group exploring the idea last spring.

In Calvert County, Superintendent Jack R. Smith said his system meets that 10-day goal in the “vast majority of cases.” Still, he said, he is against rigid rules that could overturn decisions for the occasional instance of, say, human error or weather delay.

“We have to meet the kids’ needs and not leave them languishing in never-never land,” he said. “But at the same time, we can’t make unreasonable rules that lead to unintended outcomes.”

The state does not collect data on class time missed during the disciplinary process. But more than 60,000 students a year are suspended from school or expelled in Maryland, according to state figures.

Montgomery stands apart from many systems in its use of a two-stage decision-making process. First, there is an investigative conference within 10 days; two-thirds of students are returned to school.

But for the others — about 150 students a year — a second conference is scheduled, with a process that stretches “three to four weeks, and sometimes longer,” from suspension to ruling, said Wayne Whigham, director of the appeals and transfer office.

Some cases are delayed because of lawyer involvement, family scheduling conflicts, lack of an interpreter or police action, he said.

“I don’t see how anybody does it faster than that,” Whigham said, adding that Montgomery is committed to thorough investigations, fairness and due process. “If that takes a little more time . . . I think everyone benefits.”

In Prince George’s, discipline cases take two paths. Long-term suspensions are decided within 10 days, but cases that might lead to expulsion took about 35 school days last year, said Karyn Lynch, chief of student services.

She said the county had sped up the process, from 39 days in 2009-10, and hopes to reduce it further. Recently, three hearing officers were added.

Lynch said that data are closely tracked and that the school system is committed to keeping students in school as much as possible.

Since late August, the state Board of Education has been inviting speakers to comment on whether its ideas are workable. The discussion is to continue Tuesday, with representatives from parent and student groups.

A decision is expected within several months.

At a recent meeting, advocates lauded the proposal and contended that cases should not take so long. “We are not talking about a protracted kind of ‘CSI’ drama, where we have to take evidence and do tests,” said Jane Sundius, of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore.

Special education students are disproportionately affected by suspensions, Nicole Joseph, a lawyer with the Maryland Disability Law Center, told the board, citing the case of the 17-year-old who waited seven weeks for a hearing.

Special education students lose not only class time, but also services such as speech therapy and counseling, Joseph said. “They are suspended at a higher rate,” she said, “and they have additional needs.”

In Virginia, where the student suicide touched off months of debate, Fairfax schools spokesman Paul Regnier said the disciplinary process has been shortened and that data will be analyzed this year to pinpoint how long it now takes.

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