"Expelled" has been an empty word in public education. Students who were expelled typically returned to school right away, often to a special campus for students with disciplinary problems.

In Anne Arundel this fall, the term will take on a more literal meaning.

Two changes in the school system's disciplinary code will leave hundreds of expelled students with no school to attend. Those under age 16, for whom school is compulsory, will be taught at home under a program designed for the sick or disabled. Those 16 and over will be on their own.

Expelled students under 16 in Anne Arundel historically have attended one of two special campuses: J. Albert Adams Academy for middle-school students or Mary E. Moss Academy for high schoolers. Older students went to evening high schools.

The recent discipline code changes will fill those sites to capacity. First, the school board extended the term of expulsions from 18 weeks to a range of from 18 to 36 weeks. Second, the board changed the mission of the two academies to focus more on students who are at risk of expulsion but not yet expelled.

Now there is only enough space at the Adams and Moss academies for two groups of students: those already serving expulsions meted out last year, and the new category of "pre-expulsion" students. The two campuses have only 200 seats between them, said Kathy Lane, who oversees alternative education in Anne Arundel.

This fall, the school board will begin an urgent search for space to instruct expelled students, Lane said.

The discipline code changes were made partly in response to principals, who have said the 18-week suspensions often didn't have the desired effect of improving behavior. Another factor was the school system's annual survey, which found an increase in the number of students who reported they did not feel safe among fellow students.

School board member Eugene Peterson, a proponent of alternative education, said he approves of the changes to the disciplinary code. He does not, however, like the idea of sending expelled kids home.

"My point is, this is not something that suddenly happened," Peterson said. "It's a product of years of what I'd call benign neglect."

Both Lane and Peterson say home education, which includes instruction by a visiting teacher, is far from an optimal arrangement for students under 16 serving out expulsions. The program is not designed for students with disciplinary problems, nor is it flexible enough to cover the full range of academics, let alone electives, in a student's schedule. And it is more expensive than traditional schooling.

"A teacher shows up for just six hours a week," Peterson said. "Who the hell knows what they're doing when they're not home-educating? . . . I can promise you that if I were a parent of those kids, I would seek legal advice."

Expelled students over 16, who in the past could attend evening school, won't be offered that option this year because there's not enough funding to cover the expense. "They will be required to apply for readmission to the school after the expulsion ends," Lane said.

Anne Arundel schools generate nearly 600 expulsions and extended suspensions (of two weeks or more) in a typical academic year, Lane said. In the past, there was enough room at the two academies to hold them, because the terms were comparatively short and the student population transient.

Changes to the school board disciplinary code were also prompted by concern over the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires, among other things, that secondary schools chart steady progress with their attendance rates. Overall attendance in Anne Arundel high schools has dipped from 93.3 percent to 92.5 percent over the past three years and remains below the state standard of 94 percent. Middle school attendance has improved slightly in that span and hovers just over the statewide standard.

In the survey of students, parents and school employees released in May, the share of students reporting that they feel safe at school declined between 2004 and 2005 -- from 88 percent to 80 percent in middle school, and from 82 percent to 74 percent in high school.

Students answering the survey also were more likely to report racial tensions, drug use and fights at school. Among elementary students, for example, 75 percent reported that fighting is a problem, compared with 64 percent in an earlier survey.