Maryland Schools Moving Away from Suspensions for Disrespect

The Washington Post

By Donna St. George

Maryland is urging its 1,450 public schools to move away from student suspensions for incidents of disrespect and insubordination as part of newly approved code-of-conduct guidelines.The guidelines reflect the sweeping changes that the Maryland State Board of Education made six months ago as it sought to take a more rehabilitative approach toward student misconduct and reduce racial disparities in punishment.

The recommendations are intended to help districts as they update their local codes of conduct to incorporate the shift in Maryland’s thinking. They include a wide range of offenses matched with possible consequences.

For disrespect — talking back or cursing, for example — there are more than 20 suggested options, including behavioral contracts, temporary removal from class, detention, loss of privileges, parental contact and community service. There is no out-of-school suspension.

A state report done as part of Maryland’s examination of school discipline showed that more than 10,000 students wre suspended for disrespect or insubordination in the year studied, 2010-2011.

By removing students from school, “we’re not necessarily teaching them about respect,” said Kristina Kyles, Maryland’s assistant superintendent for the division of student, family and school support. “We don’t want to pull the biggest tool out of the box first,” she said.

Kyles has heard from school systems that are making changes based on drafts of the guidelines. “They are already saying the format is so helpful and the definitions are helpful,” she said.

The guidelines were developed by a work group that included representatives from more than 30 organizations and agencies, including the Maryland PTA, the Maryland State Education Association and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

Group members did not always agree, and the guidelines were a result of debate and compromise, the work group’s report said.

The guidelines include five “levels” of responses to misconduct.

For example, firearms offenses would receive a Level 5 response, which includes long-term suspension and expulsion. But a violation of the dress code is matched with a Level 1 response, which could include detention, a counselor check-in or peer mediation.

Disrespect and insubordination received lengthy consideration, with some in the work group thinking that suspensions were appropriate, their report said. But it also noted that the Maryland board had issued “a clear directive” — that neither merited removal from school.

“The guidelines are radically different from anything Maryland has ever had on a statewide level,” said Katherine Rabb of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, co-chair of the work group.

Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the guidelines are useful for uniform definitions and a framework for progressive discipline but warned that funding for training or new efforts may be limited. “Different districts have different amounts of resources,” she said. “I would hope that districts would still have the opportunity to use these as they saw fit.”

Told about the new guidelines, Scott Harper, a PTA leader from Kensington, said that for mild offenses, he would support teaching students about positive behavior rather than sending them home.

“If they are corrected and counseled, that would be a more constructive way,” he said.

Parent Daneene Chadwick, of Silver Spring, said that strong consequences are important, especially if behavior is repeated. “Schools are in the business of teaching, and I think they are spending an inordinate amount of time with discipline,” she said.

The recommendations come as another step in Maryland’s effort of more than four years to make student discipline practices fairer and more equitable and keep more students on track to graduate. In January, the State Board of Education approved major changes in discipline regulations. That same month, Obama administration officials called for a similar rethinking and issued the first federal guidelines on discipline.

The new Maryland recommendations include philosophical principles, noting, for example, that students don’t come to school “perfect” academically or behaviorally, with many facing challenges at home or in the community. “Students should be afforded opportunities to learn from their mistakes,” they say.

An out-of-school suspension “should always be a last resort,” the guidelines say. And if students are removed from school, they should be given the chance to make up work for credit so that they stay on track in classes.

The recommendations say schools should not let harsh discipline over-impact certain groups, such as students of color, those with disabilities, males and those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. An analysis of state data released this year showed that black students were suspended or expelled at more than twice the rate of white students.

Safe and positive schools are built on trusting relationships between students and staff, the guidelines say. “Schools should avoid the unnecessary criminalization of students, which is prompted by frequent school resource officer, police, and juvenile justice involvement.”