By Holden Wilen
BALTIMORE – The Maryland State Board of Education is hoping to keep students in school after passing new regulations last week regarding student discipline.
“Safe schools grow out of a positive school climate,” said State Board President Charlene M. Dukes. “Maryland is dedicated to maintaining safety while increasing student achievement. In order for students to achieve success, they must be in school.”
The changes still give principals discretion to suspend students, but limits how long suspensions can be and only allows them for the most offenses. The new regulations also look to speed up the student appeal process by allowing local boards of education to hear and decide appeals with an opportunity to extend the time period in complex cases.
Local jurisdictions have until the beginning of the 2014-15 school year to update their student discipline polices based on the new regulations.
Montgomery County Board of Education President Phil Kauffman said the local board will need to make some changes, but has already made changes over the last few years including moving away from mandatory suspensions for offenses.
“We’ve been giving more discretion to principals and changing the types of consequences students receive to keep them in school,” Kauffman said. “We need to try and promote positive behaviors.”
Dana Tofig, spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools, said the county has tried to remain ahead of the curve. One of the main reasons reducing suspensions is because of the disparity between the number of white and Asian students being suspended compared to the number of Hispanic and Black students suspended.
According to MCPS data, during the 2012-13 school year 1,804 high school students were suspended, a suspension rate of four percent. Of those students, 49.8 percent were Black, and 28.2 percent were Hispanic.
At the middle school level, 1,133 students were suspended during the 2012-13 school year, a suspension rate of 3.6 percent. Of those students, 47.6 percent were Black, and 31 percent were Hispanic.
“We have been successful in reducing overall suspensions, but narrowing the gap has been more difficult,” Tofig said. “As far as the regulations themselves we are already very much in line with where the state is going.”
Though the school system looks to reduce suspensions, it will still need to discipline students who misbehave. It is important to balance a need for discipline with the desire to keep students in school, Tofig said.
It will be on the schools to figure out what other types of discipline to use, Kauffman said.
“Maybe in-school suspensions, or maybe we just need to be a little more tolerant,” he said.
Tofig said each case needs to be dealt with individually.
“There can be an in-school suspension, or there are services a child can receive at home,” Tofig said. “There could be assignment to another school or an alternative program. There are a number of ways you can address an issue. I think the important thing is one size does not fit all when it comes to discipline.”