The number of student suspensions in Howard County public high schools fell last year by 16 percent, partly because of new disciplinary alternatives, and expulsions at all levels were halved, according to a report presented to the Board of Education last week. Suspensions increased slightly, however, at elementary schools.

Since 1997, the county has been phasing in several alternatives to suspensions, including programs at high schools and some middle schools for disruptive students to learn in school outside their regular classrooms, crisis intervention programs and Saturday school.

In addition to those programs, officials suggest that the decrease in suspensions could be due, in part, to an influx of students from outside the county in the 1997-98 school year. That year, administrators said, incidents spiked as students brought bad behaviors with them; last year, they realized those behaviors wouldn't be tolerated.

"They first came sort of testing us to see what was going to happen, or didn't even care," said administrative coordinator Alice Haskins. "Now I think that you've found a drop in number of behaviors, now that the kids have gotten the word that this is what's going to happen."

The county has experienced a small but troubling increase in suspensions at elementary schools, in particular for insubordination and assaults on staff. Three percent of elementary school students were suspended at least one time in the 1998-99 school year, compared with 2 percent a year earlier.

"Kids are coming in with a lot of behaviors we aren't used to seeing," Haskins said. "We would never have elementary students who would come in and try to hit a teacher."

Nine percent of middle and high school students were suspended, compared with 10 percent and 13 percent, respectively, in 1997-98. Two high schools--Atholton and Wilde Lake--cut suspensions nearly in half.

At some middle schools, administrators said, suspensions increased because principals implemented zero-tolerance policies.

Last year, the most common reason for suspensions in high schools were behavior (31 percent) and insubordination (19 percent).

In middle schools, they included behavior (40 percent) and assaults on students (18 percent). In elementary schools, the reason for suspensions included assaults on students (27 percent) and behavior (24 percent) and smoking (20 percent).

The general behavior category includes, among other things, fighting, threatening other students and harassment. That category and reported assaults on students decreased at all levels. Suspensions also continued to fall in the categories of arson, attendance, explosive devices and insubordination.

No students were suspended for truancy last year, compared with 86 the year before. Instead, students who played hooky were sent to detention or Saturday school. "If you suspend them," Haskins said, "you're playing right into their hands."

The county tries to avoid suspending students when it can so that their academic performance doesn't suffer.

Certain violations, including drug and alcohol use and weapon possession, bring automatic suspension; in other cases, administrators try other methods--for example, detention, Saturday school, restrictions in school activities, counseling--to address behavior problems before resorting to suspension.

At Saturday school, which is overseen by teachers, students caught for minor violations spend about four hours completing homework.

Nearly 3,500 high school students and 1,500 middle school students attended Saturday school last year.

School officials hope that new learning initiatives, such as those to lower class size and improve reading instruction, will push the numbers of suspensions and other disciplinary actions even lower.

Said administrative coordinator Eugene Streagle, "Students who are academically successful probably are less likely to get into trouble."