Prince George's County School System Tackles High Number of Suspensions

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By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 2009

The epicenter of trouble at G. James Gholson Middle School used to be the cafeteria.

When a few hundred seventh- and eighth-graders crammed together, they would gain a sense of strength in numbers. The noise was overwhelming. Food fights erupted almost daily. Roughhousing sometimes led to brawls. The school handed out 867 suspensions in the 2006-07 school year, more than 250 for fighting.

The Landover school offered a case study of what Prince George's County leaders want to change. Many educators agree that suspensions are ineffective in changing behavior. When students return after a suspension, they're behind in class and often angry, which can provoke them to do something that will get them suspended again. Students who are repeatedly suspended are far more likely to drop out.

Prince George's schools issued more than 21,700 suspensions in the 2007-08 academic year, involving almost 13,000 students who were kept out of school -- many of them more than once, according to state data. The county's suspension total was more than any other Maryland school system and almost three times the total in neighboring Montgomery County. D.C. public schools -- about a third the size of the Prince George's system -- issued more than 2,200 suspensions in 2007-08. To many observers, the Prince George's tally represented an educational failure because school administrators were forced to sacrifice in part their academic mission in order to keep campuses under control.

"What we've been doing hasn't worked," said Prince George's school board member Pat Fletcher (District 3).

Board members, community leaders, principals, a teacher, students and school staff have reviewed suspensions this year in a series of meetings in Upper Marlboro that shed unusual light on campus disciplinary policies. On June 25, the task force will present the school board with a wide-ranging proposal to overhaul policies in an effort to radically reduce the number of students thrown out of school. D.C. school officials have taken similar steps.

A draft of the Prince George's proposal suggests eliminating suspensions of elementary school students and reducing suspensions in middle school except for situations in which a student poses a danger to others. Disrespect and insubordination, the cause of more than 9,000 suspensions last year, would be less likely to force a student to stay home from school. Schools also would be encouraged to develop effective programs to handle discipline in ways that keep students on campus.

Experts say forcing a student to stay out of school can be problematic, particularly when a child goes home to an unstable family situation or is allowed to run the streets.

"You send them home for 10 days, they aren't going to 'see the wizard' [and] come back reformed," Phil Lee, president of the Kettering Civic Federation, said at a meeting. "They come back angrier."

"I have to say this: 'The wizard' should be living at your house," replied Gholson Principal Jeffrey J. Parker. "When you do have to send a child home at some point, a parent needs to be responsible for modifying behavior."

Parker told of a girl whom he caught walking down the hall without permission during class time. She refused to obey his orders to go back to class. Legally, he was unable to force her physically into a classroom. In that situation, with other students watching such open defiance, Parker argued that there had to be consequences or he would lose control of the school.

"But how does out-of-school suspension solve that problem?" asked school board member Heather Iliff (District 2).


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