Proposed changes to the student behavior policy for Baltimore County schools sparked a lively debate among county Board of Education members at a work session Tuesday night — with some arguing for their immediate passage and others requesting more time to review them.

The considered changes would tweak the school system's current policy, namely to allow principals to use their own discretion when considering how to punish a student for committing infractions that currently require the student be expelled or assigned to an alternative academic program.

Those infractions include possession of alcohol on school grounds, striking a teacher intervening in a fight, and making a bomb threat, among others.

The revised policy, meant to help address the county's high suspension rate, was introduced at the board's monthly work session for the first time, but the changes are similar to those introduced unsuccessfully before the board months ago.

James Coleman, chair of the board's policy review committee, requested on behalf of schools staff that the board waive the required second and third readings of the changes and adopt them immediately.

The school system must print student handbooks with the policy by the middle of June, and so has a limited timeframe for the changes to be adopted, he said.

Other board members immediately balked at the recommendation.

Board member Ramona Johnson said African-American male students are disproportionately suspended, and that she didn't think the changes spoke to that concern.

Board member Cornelia Bright Gordon argued another change to the policy adding more explicit language about students being subject to restrictions on cell-phone use on school buses from extracurricular activities "doesn't fit in today's lifestyle."

Board member Rodger Janssen said he doesn't take well to being told to "make a decision tonight or else."

Coleman and other members of the policy committee who supported the changes noted their frustration with their peers for not having brought their concerns to the committee before the work session.

"You're really being unfair, in a sense," Coleman told his colleagues.

The conversation went back and forth among members until a vote on whether to waive the second and third readings was called by board chair Lawrence Schmidt, and the board voted 5-5. A tie vote means the motion is not approved.

The policy changes will be presented for a second reading at the council's June session, at which time the board may waive the need for a third reading and approve the changes, Schmidt said.

That may still allow the school system to meet its deadline for printing the handbooks in time for distribution to students in August, Schmidt said.

krector@baltsun.com

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