By Gretchen Phillips and Sara Newman
While they say the intent is good, Charles County educators have some concerns with new state disciplinary regulations.
Members of the Maryland State Department of Education adopted new regulations Jan. 28 regarding student discipline, which are intended to change the way school systems handle suspensions and expulsions and end racial disparities in how they are dispensed.
The new regulations, published in the Dec. 13 Maryland Register, are designed to keep students in school rather than resorting to out-of-school and out-of-classroom punishments and maintain progress toward graduation while strengthening school safety, the state board said in a press release.
“The concern is that too many students are being left behind because of long-term expulsions,” Bill Reinhard, spokesman for MSDE, said Thursday. “But the goal is not to create more disruptive classrooms. … School systems can handle it the way they find it most beneficial in a way that keeps the student receiving the educational services, which our students are entitled to.”
The vote represents the culmination of more than four years of study by state board members. The state board invited dozens of educators and interested organizations to testify and provide input as part of that process.
State board members have been concerned by the number and length of student suspensions, the effect that loss of class time has on academic success and the achievement gap on standardized tests between minority groups and the majority as well as the effect that suspensions have on certain student subgroups.
In 2012, MSDE approved a revised report, “School Discipline and Academic Success: Related Parts of Maryland’s Education Reform,” claiming that for students to be college and career ready, school systems should prohibit policies that allow automatic discipline without discretion and explain how long-term suspensions and expulsions are last-resort options.
Charles County Public Schools Superintendent Kimberly A. Hill said of the intent of the state board in changing the rules “we are completely on board with.”
She said the school system does have some concerns regarding specific language in the regulations that might inhibit local authority.
In some cases, she said the language comes off as constricting and “doesn’t always make clear that local districts are still going to have autonomy on specific disciplinary situations.”
Education Association of Charles County representatives are on the same page with the school system, saying the EACC, the teachers union, agrees with the goals of the regulations but has concerns within them.
EACC President Elizabeth Brown said there should be more of a focus on providing resources for teachers and getting teachers and parents working in partnership.
Brown said teachers are in schools to teach and not discipline, and teachers and students deserve a safe place to teach and learn.
Hill said aligning the school system’s code of conduct with the new regulations will not be an issue.
She said the system will revise its code of conduct to make sure it is in line with the regulations while continuing with the system’s high expectations for students.
“I recognize we have a responsibility to maintain safe and orderly schools, and we are going to do that within the new guidelines,” Hill said. The regulations focus on keeping suspensions as a last resort, which Hill said the school system agrees with.
Statewide, more than 42,000 students were suspended or expelled last school year — placing them at risk for academic failure, dropping out and involvement in the justice system, experts said in a 2012-13 MSDE report.
The regulations require local school systems to adopt policies that reduce long-term out-of-school suspensions and expulsions and use such actions only when a student poses an imminent threat of serious harm to other students or staff or when a student is engaged in chronic or extreme disruptive behavior.
Brown said she does not argue with the statistics and recognizes there is a problem that school systems need to work toward, but she said “throwing legislation out there without the support” is not solving the problem.
Through supports and programs already in place in Charles County schools, suspensions have decreased, and the average length of suspension in Charles County is three days.
According to information from the school system, 2,831 students were suspended in the 2008-09 school year, while 2,100 students were suspended last year. One student was expelled last year.
The regulations require local school boards to adopt policies that allow for discretion, keep students connected to school and “reflect a discipline philosophy based on the goals of fostering, teaching and acknowledging positive behavior.” The policies must “explain why and how long-term suspensions or expulsions are a last-resort option.”
School system spokeswoman Katie O’Malley Simpson said programs are in place to avoid suspensions, including Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports programs. The PBIS programs have been in place since 1999.
The programs focus on rewarding children for positive behavior rather than reprimanding them for negative behavior. Individual schools started PBIS programs at different times. Some schools also have character education programs, which focus on positive aspects of student behaviors.
According to information from the school system, 31 schools have PBIS programs, while the other four have character education programs.
Other supports in place in the system that help to keep students in school include school resource officers, Charles County sheriff’s officers assigned to each middle and high school; partnerships with community mental heath agencies; full-time psychologists assigned to each high school; and a full-time pupil personnel worker assigned to each middle and high school.
When misbehavior takes place, Hill said educators have and will continue to enforce the code of conduct in a respectful and consistent way and teach the proper way to behave.
“It’s not about punishment. It’s about teaching responsible behavior,” she said.
In addition, the regulations seek to expedite the student discipline appeal process by allowing local boards of education to hear and decide school discipline appeals with an opportunity to extend that time period in complex cases.
“Safe schools grow out of a positive school climate,” Maryland Board of Education President Charlene M. Dukes said in the release. “Maryland is dedicated to maintaining safety while increasing student achievement. In order for students to achieve success, they must be in school.”
The regulations also seek to eliminate the disproportionate effect of school discipline on minority students and students with disabilities. MSDE said it will develop a method to analyze local school discipline data to measure the effects.
Local boards of education will be required to update their student discipline polices based on the new regulations by the beginning of the 2014-15 school year.