Baltimore County school leaders are reconsidering discipline policies that have led to one of the highest suspension rates in the state, saying they want to reduce the number of times students are sent home for minor infractions.
A revamped discipline code, made public for the first time this week, would encourage staff and teachers to intervene with students before they are suspended and would give principals more flexibility in how they deal with bad behavior.
The school board will consider the new policy over the next month and will vote on it in April.
The proposal would bring the county discipline code more into line with a plan from the state school board, which is expected to introduce new discipline policies Tuesday.
"We have most likely overused suspension as the consequence for every [bad] behavior," said Dale Rauenzahn, executive director of student support services for the county schools. The result was a high suspension rate that kept students out of school. "If you want students to achieve, they have to be in the classroom."
Known for having one of the strictest discipline policies in the state, Baltimore County suspends about one in every 10 students each year and, as in many Maryland districts, a disproportionate number of African-American and special-education students are suspended.
After years of defending discipline policies, the county system is encouraging teachers and administrators to use their judgment and intervene to stop the behavior rather than suspend students. Administrators were sometimes suspending students for three or five days at a time repeatedly, Rauenzahn said, and the system is hoping to stop that practice.
Whether county school board members will support the new policy is unclear. One board member, Rodger Janssen, said he believes the system has a record of good academic achievement, which may be related to its discipline policies.
"I know what the state board is doing. The handwriting is clear on the wall, but I don't want to walk away from what I think has made this school system" successful, he said.
The new policy would not change the consequence for the most serious violations — when a student brings a weapon to school, attacks a teacher or sells drugs.
But when students misbehave on a school bus, for example, the punishment should not be to keep them out of the classroom, Rauenzahn said. Instead, the consequence might be to prohibit them from riding the bus.
"We want to talk more about interventions, using other tools than the suspensions," he said.
More students are likely to be given service learning or be barred from after-school activities when they commit small violations of the discipline code. Instead of dividing all discipline offenses into just three categories, the system is proposing adding a fourth category that defines what should be done for "minor acts of misconduct."
"It is clarifying what it means to be student-centered in terms of discipline, to really work with the students to change behavior. That is a tall order," said Dundalk High School Principal Tom Shouldice, who supports the changes.
The new policy would allow students to bring cellphones to school but would require them to be turned off and put away during class, a change that is a nod to reality in most schools, Shouldice said.
Cathy Walrod, principal at Hereford Middle School, said she supports the changes and has been trying to use punishments that fit the misdeed. For example, a student who throws food in the cafeteria is more likely to find himself staying after school to help the janitor than to be suspended. She said administrators in her building ask, "What would make this child want to change his behavior?" In some cases, she said, they ask the student the question.
But statistics show that many administrators across the state have handed down suspensions without first making the consequences clear. "I have given the principals the ability, the flexibility to use other alternatives to suspension. Many administrators felt they were locked in and had to suspend," Rauenzahn said.
Students who disrupt classrooms could still be suspended, he said.
Rauenzahn said principals will be warned that they must intervene immediately if a special-education student has been suspended for five days, even if those five days are not consecutive.