When ninth-grader Chris Jackson got into trouble at High Point High School this week, administrators sent him home to serve a week-long suspension. He spent the first day sleeping and watching TV.
Tuesday afternoon, a counselor called and asked him to return to school to attend a class with other students on suspension. There, Chris and a dozen others tackled class work, discussed current events and talked with school counselors about their behavior.
"I'd rather be at home," Chris said. But he acknowledged that the class was beneficial. "I was having trouble with my government [class]. It helped me understand it better."
Administrators began the program at the Prince George's County school last year, believing it better to give suspended students academic and social support in school than send them home.
During the next two months, Prince George's and the District will launch the first systemwide in-school suspension programs in the Washington area, offering academic instruction and counseling. Both districts will hire at least one new teacher for each middle and high school--and, in the District's case, elementary school--to oversee the programs.
"What we're trying to do is change behaviors," said Patricia Green, the Prince George's school system's director of pupil services, who got School Superintendent Iris T. Metts's permission to spend $1.8 million on the new program. "The issue is not the suspension but the behavior of the young person. If we do not look at the cause, but only the punishment, we will not get rid of the problem."
With suspensions generally on the rise across the region, school systems increasingly are using in-school programs to maintain order in classrooms while addressing the academic performance and behavior of troubled students.
Those who commit serious violations--such as fighting, bringing a weapon or drugs to school or threatening a teacher or classmate--will be suspended from school or expelled. It's the less serious offenders--those who sass their teachers or are late to class--whom officials are trying to reach.
Whether school-based suspension programs help students overcome behavioral problems so they can return to regular classrooms is open to debate.
In Fairfax and Montgomery counties, where many schools use classroom-based suspension programs, results have varied. Two years ago, Fairfax started placing students who had been suspended five or more times in a separate class. In all, 141 students entered the program during the 1997-98 school year; only 22 percent returned to their regular classes by year's end.
"There has been some controversy that we're not returning enough students to their classes, but the primary goal of the program was to remove [misbehaving] students so that others can learn," said Doug Holmes, Fairfax's director of student services.
In Montgomery, suspension rates have continued to rise even as more schools have added in-school suspension programs.
Critics contend that too many students languish in the special programs, which are useful only if schools provide staff trained to address child and adolescent behavioral issues.
Teachers in Fairfax's program are certified and attend workshops to learn how to deal with troubled students, Holmes said. District officials have asked their schools to give more training to teachers supervising in-school suspension classes. Officials in Prince George's said they will explain their program more thoroughly when it is officially unveiled next month.
Amid the nationwide clamor for more structured intervention programs, in-school suspension classes increasingly are supplementing other programs such as peer mediation, mentors, Saturday school and character education classes, said Pamela Riley, executive director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C.
But as school systems have implemented stricter rules to deal with increased school violence, more students are still being sent home to serve their punishments.
"The results," whether such programs improve behavior and curb repeat offenses, Riley said, "are inconclusive."
At High Point High, Principal William Ryan said he sent 683 students home on suspension during the 1997-98 school year, but only 489 in 1998-99, using the new class for less serious offenders.
One of those was Vashti Mathis, 14, who was sent to in-school suspension after being disrespectful to an administrator. On a recent afternoon, she worked on math problems in the room and reflected on her predicament.
"It's boring in here. I'd rather be in my regular classes."
The District and Prince George's County are launching systemwide in-school suspension programs that will keep students out of regular classes but in school and out of trouble.
Students suspended or expelled, 1997-98 school year:
Percent of student body: 3.0%
Percent of student body: 13.3%
Percent of student body: 5.8%
Percent of student body: 5.5%
Jurisdiction: Anne Arundel
Percent of student body: 9.2%
Percent of student body: 7.4%
Percent of student body: 12.9%
Percent of student body: 4.9%
Percent of student body: 3.6%
Jurisdiction: Prince George's
Percent of student body: 9.7%
Jurisdiction: St. Mary's
Percent of student body: 9.6%
* Loudoun and Prince William data were not available.
SOURCE: Area school districts