At Montgomery Blair High School there is a room the students call "The Pit." About 12 by 18 feet and windowless, it once was the ticket office for events in the auditorium.
This year for the first time, students who are suspended from school -- for offenses ranging from disrespect to a teacher to fighting -- spend six hours in The Pit, an experiment the Montgomery County school system has undertaken in its efforts to keep teen-agers in school.
The in-school suspensions has been tried at Blair, in Silver Spring, and Ridgeview Junior High in Germantown this year, and may be used in several more schools next fall. Meanwhile, school officials are evaluating the new disciplinary action as a deterrent to misbehavior. One indication, they believe, is the low number of repeat offenders -- 18 out of 150 at Blair and 16 out of 83 at Ridgeview.
Blair assistant principal Mary Curry said although she does not have exact figures on suspensions in previous years, there have been fewer repeaters this year.
"In-school suspension is less palatable. There's no doubt about that," she said.
"I never liked giving the kids a day off for cutting. It gave the kids a license for standing over at Ertter's (a market next to the school grounds where truants often gather). Here we were, suspending them for being over at Ertter's, and then we gave them a day off to stand . . . at Ertter's."
The Pit is an enforced study hall where as many as 11 students at once have spent the day sitting at two round tables, heads bent over assignments they picked up the day before from their teachers. A teacher is always present.
The Montgomery school board, responding to surveys that found discipline was the reason parents most often gave for transferring children from public to private schools, has moved to tighten its behavior and attendance policies. A majority of the seven-member board was elected on platforms that called for "cracking down on hooky and reversing the permissive educational policies of the past," as Marian Greenblatt's campaign literature put it.
Among the changes, the board voted to reduce from 10 to 5 the number of unexcused absences allowed before a student loses academic credit. Last year, 2,647 students in senior high schools lost credit for having 10 unexcused absences. This year, school officials say preliminary counts show the number of students losing credit may be about the same, although only five unexcused absences have been allowed.
A task force on discipline, which has been meeting throughout the year, is to report to the school board June 22 on its recommendations for changes in disciplinary policies and the relationship between the juvenile justice system and the schools. Some task force members say the juvenile court has been too lenient on youths charged with drug-related offenses or assaults, and has returned such students to school too readily.
The in-school suspensions are seen as another step toward controlling attendance.
"For years we've been saying we have to find alternatives to suspension. It's an unprofitable way to go," said Harry Pitt, deputy superintendent of schools. "Suspension is very effective for youngsters who did something one time."
"Suspensions were used at a time when parents were more bent out of shape by suspensions and were involved in the punitive aspects," said Blair's Mary Curry. "In calling parents now, I find they are less concerned over what the kid did than the fact that the kid would be home for three or four days. The crime is far less important to the parent than the punishment."
"Years ago, if a student were suspended, there probably would be a parent at home," said Robert Segreti, who monitors the suspension room at Blair. "Now, the student goes home and there's no one there."
"Most of the students are very angry about it because they want out-of-school suspension. They want to go home and watch TV. Especially the truants -- they want to go home; you're just handing it to them," said Brenda Smith, the student behavior assistant at Ridgeview, who has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and sociology.
In all, 150 students have spent time in The Pit at Blair this year, and the school has worked out the details of the punishment to the minute. The day preceding the one on which the student is "suspended," he or she must take an assignment sheet to each teacher so that make-up work can be assigned for the classes to be missed.
The student is given a sheet listing the "minimum expectation," for time to be spent in the center. These concern arrival and depature times, study assignments, behavior, lunch period (20 minutes, supervised) and rules for lavatory use.The paper also informs the student that failure to meet the "expectations" of in-school suspension will make him or her subject to further disciplinary action by the assistant principal.
The student signs the paper.
Segreti and Pat callan, who run Blair's in-school suspension center, keep a time record on each student so that if, for example, a student shows up 15 minutes late, it is recorded and the time must be made up at the end of the day.
"Is it a deterrent? Not for smoking cigarettes. The kids say they'll just smoke someplace else next time," said Ridgeview's Smith, who does not have the use of an extra room for suspensions and so moves her charges from room to room during the course of a day.
"It depends on how the child views authority and rules.For some it's a deterrent, but for those kids who are not bothered by the consequences, there's nothing you can do. A lot do not care, and you can see that in the recidivism.
"Still, there has to be a consequence that they face. Whether it is a deterrent or not, not having consequences is a disservice to the child. In life there are prices to pay: Whether you keep doing it and are willing to pay the price -- at least you know you have to pay the price," said Smith.