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State school board continues effort to reduce suspensions despite negative public comments

Despite a barrage of public comments, many negative, Maryland State Board of Education members said Tuesday that they will push forward with plans to reduce the use of long-term suspensions and expulsions in student discipline.

"Everybody gets that kids need to be in school," said board President James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr. "The question is how do we do that?"

The board received more than 200 written comments after asking for public input when it released a report in late February, detailing proposed changes that would reduce suspensions for nonviolent offenses.

Those who expressed concerns often said that "good" students would be harmed if schools were not allowed to separate students with behavioral problems.

"Although I laud the goal of keeping children in school, many of the suggestions in this study would have a negative effect on well behaved students," wrote Randolph Brown of Ellicott City. "Why coddle students with chronic behavior problems at the expense of others in the classroom? As you know, it only takes one troublemaker in class to disrupt the learning process for the rest of students."

John Murdock, a physics teacher at Dulaney High School, wrote that many schools would need more staff to deal with in-school discipline. He said the board's plan is "noble in its intent, but it is not feasible given the current structure of schools in Maryland."

DeGraffenreidt said the board should assure parents that the needs of well-behaved students will not be ignored. Board members also called for expanded training in teaching good behavior and for mechanisms that would allow principals to share successful discipline practices.

Nina Marks, the board's student member, said teachers and administrators have approached her with concerns that they won't be able to balance in-school suspensions with regular instruction.

"If we gave them guidance and seminars on how to deal with this issue, that might help tremendously in reassuring our administrations," said Marks, a senior at Dulaney. "They might need a step-by-step manual."

The board's plans drew positive comments as well, especially from relatives of students who had been suspended. "This zero-tolerance policy needs to be revisited," wrote Howard County parent Shelley Lombardo, who said her son was suspended for a minor tussle. "My son lost a day of education because the schools can't discipline the kids — they can just kick them out."

The board launched its inquiry into the issue two years ago, after a 15-year-old Dorchester County girl was expelled for most of her ninth-grade year and received little education while she was out of school.

Other commenters said the board should appoint a task force to study the issue further, but DeGraffenreidt said that seems unnecessary after two years of investigation and discussion. "I'm biased to believe we are that task force," he said. "And we have done that outreach."

The board has not set a clear timeline for changing its disciplinary policies, but DeGraffenreidt said the issue will be on its agenda again in June.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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