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Maryland’s new approach to student discipline moves closer to approval

Maryland education officials proposed a new set of school discipline regulations Tuesday that aim to scale back on suspensions, keep students in class, reduce racial disparities in punishment and take a more positive approach to behavior issues.

The proposed regulations, unanimously approved by the Maryland State Board of Education, follow more than two years of study and debate. They are now to be published for public consideration, with a final vote expected in December.

An earlier version of the proposals was released last July but withdrawn after critics raised concerns and board members decided to take another look at several issues. A statewide work group was formed and reported its findings in June.

Overall, Tuesday’s proposed regulations, like those offered last year, seek to shift the philosophy of discipline practices in the state’s 24 school systems and keep students more engaged in school.

By the 2014-2015 school year, school boards across Maryland would have to review and revise local discipline policies, blending goals of safety and order with a focus on positive behavior and a move away from zero-tolerance punishments.

Policies created at the local level would have to allow for discretion in disciplinary consequences and for using long-term suspensions and expulsions as a last resort. They would also have to address how schools will meet the educational and counseling needs of suspended students.

“What we all want is for young people across the state of Maryland to succeed,” Board President Charlene M. Dukes said in an interview Tuesday, adding that students cannot possibly graduate high school prepared for colleges and careers if they are not in class.

Dukes said a majority of suspensions in Maryland are given for infractions such as disrespect and insubordination — and that she hopes alternatives to out-of-school punishments will be used more frequently.

At the same time, Dukes said, the state recognizes the importance of local decision-making and a collaborative approach. “This is not the state board sending down rules to local systems,” she said.

A period of public comment will run from Sept. 20 to Oct. 21. The issue is scheduled for a final vote at the board’s meeting Dec. 10.

The revisions that resulted from the statewide work group’s efforts included changes that would give administrators more flexibility in managing appeals and provide more description of circumstances leading to the most severe disciplinary consequences.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.

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