A DECADE AGO, Prince George's schools were chaotic and poorly managed. Unruly students disrupted classes, drugs and violence were a huge problem, and teachers spent too much time trying to maintain order. The county then instituted a discipline program -- the most severe in the region -- which called for mandatory expulsions for bringing weapons or drugs to school and suspensions of one day to six months for other violations. The program has worked. For the vast majority of students, the schools are safer, quieter places in which to learn. But there has been a recurring complaint, which a monitoring committee studied for more than two years without proving or disproving -- that teachers and administrators may have enforced discipline in a way that penalized black students more than others.
Figures for the past school year show, for example, that one out of every 13 black students received at least one suspension, while the comparable figure for whites was one out of every 30 students. Still the same statistics also show a more promising trend. Suspensions among all students have dropped dramatically. In the 1984-85 school year, for example, black students received 15,080 suspensions. In the year just completed, the figure was 7,841, a decline of 48 percent. The reduction in suspensions and expulsions has not been accompanied by a return to the days of unruly schools. The discipline policy still works.
Clues to further reductions in suspensions systemwide can be found in the work of individual schools. Two years ago, Potomac High School found success in adding tutorial and counseling sessions, even on Saturdays, for troubled students. Local black leaders adopted the school and served as mentors. Student suspensions, which stood at 218 the previous year, were reduced to 90. Only one student was expelled for drug use, down from 75 in 1981. Other programs have achieved similar success in schools around the county.
Now, school system officials and interested citizens should try to extend those efforts. The county's strict discipline policy should not be dismantled or greatly altered. Too many students, black and white, are benefiting from it.