BALTIMORE — The Maryland State Board of Education moved Tuesday to cut the number of students suspended from school, saying that such punishment is used too often for nonviolent offenses and that too much class time gets lost.
Drawing a link to achievement gaps, the board also endorsed findings that out-of-school suspensions disproportionately affect minorities and special education students.
A detailed written plan the board unveiled would redefine the vocabulary of suspension — what is short, what is long — and require Maryland’s 24 school systems to pay far closer attention to whom they suspend and why.
The state would require close tracking of racial disparities in each school system. In some cases, local officials would be required to create plans to reduce disparities in one year and eliminate them over three years.
“What we’re trying to do is to prompt people to think differently about discipline, with an eye toward achievement for all students,” board President James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr. said in an interview.
In the 36-page document, the board said it aimed to keep students in school as much as possible and require educational support for those who do get removed. Now, about 23 percent of suspended students in Maryland get services to help them keep up while they are out of school.
Tuesday’s action followed lengthy study. Several discipline cases figured in the deliberations, board members said, including the suicide of a student disciplined in neighboring Virginia and the suspension of a Maryland student involved in a fight who languished for most of the school year with no educational services.
The board will allow public comment on the plan until March 30. It will take up the issue again April 24, with final action on proposed regulations expected at some point afterward.
Under the plan, the state also would require school systems to keep detailed data on campus arrests, citing a federal initiative to address the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”
But walking a careful line, the board sought to shift thinking on discipline across the state without being too prescriptive.
“The superintendents and local boards have asked that we leave the imposition of appropriate discipline in their hands,” the report said. “We agree.” No reforms would specifically address which offenses could lead to out-of-school discipline, it said.
Suspensions for nonviolent offenses, such as insubordination or classroom disturbance, account for more than 63 percent of all out-of-school suspensions in the state.
“We would hope to reduce that number to as close to zero as possible,” DeGraffenreidt said.
The plan envisions that disciplinary offenses would be coded, to distinguish violent infractions from those that are nonviolent. School systems could then examine problematic patterns and take corrective action, the report said.
The state would examine data yearly.
“Knowing the negative consequences, particularly of long-term exclusion from school, it is our view that out of school suspensions, particularly those over 10 days, should be reserved for only violent and dangerous conduct,” the report said.
Advocates, school officials and representatives from other organizations were surprised by the lack of discussion Tuesday, with the board voting on the report within a few minutes.
School boards see the changes as a move toward greater clarity at the state level while preserving local discretion about how to carry out objectives, said John Woolums of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.
The greatest fear, he said, was that the state board might reach too far into local matters.
“They really are trying to strike a balance,” he said.
Experts said Maryland’s actions, if given final approval, would make the state one of the first to substantially restrict out-of-school suspensions. Connecticut requires in-school suspensions in most cases. In Massachusetts and California, legislative changes are being considered that would address concerns about fairness and missed instruction time.
“I think it reflects our most current research knowledge that there are more effective ways to improve kids’ behavior that also lead to higher achievement and higher graduation rates and that in the long term are far less costly,” says Daniel J. Losen, who recently wrote a study of suspension and racial disparities for the National Education Policy Center at University of Colorado.
In its report, the board noted that nearly 10,000 students in Maryland were suspended three or more times last school year.
Yet, the report said, research links suspension with negative outcomes, including low academic achievement and dropping out of school. In Maryland, about 8,800 students drop out each year.
The report asked: “Why would Maryland public schools issue over 95,866 out-of-school suspensions to 56,041 students in the 2010-2011 school year, the majority of which were issued for non-violent conduct?”
The proposed changes would speed up decision making in serious discipline cases, with a 10-day turnaround for rulings, so that students do not idle out of school waiting. In nonviolent cases, students would be sent back to school if the process were to drag on.