Baltimore County reported the highest suspension rate of any Maryland district apart from the Eastern Shore in the last school year, despite its efforts to focus on discipline that doesn't require students to miss classroom time.
About 10,000 students were suspended — or about one in every 10 — a rate that exceeds Baltimore City, where suspensions have been significantly reduced under CEO Andrés Alonso.
The issue has prompted fierce debate — among education advocates and at school board meetings. Proponents defend suspensions as a time-honored and effective punishment, while opponents point to recent research showing that suspended students are at higher risk for dropping out, repeating a grade and entering the criminal justice system.
The numbers in Baltimore County "deserve serious scrutiny," said Jane Sundius of the Open Society Institute in Baltimore, a nonprofit group that has studied suspensions and expulsions. She also challenged the district to take "a hard look" at the disproportionate number of suspensions for African-American and special-education students.
County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston pointed out that the system has "made progress" in lowering the suspension rate in recent years. The rate peaked during the 2006-2007 school year at 12.6 percent. Since then, the county has made changes, including shortening suspensions for some infractions.
"It does remain an ongoing concern for us," said Hairston. The administration, he said, is looking into more changes in its discipline policies that, if approved by the school board, would give administrators "sound interventions to use instead of suspension for certain identified infractions."
Across the state, 6.8 percent of students were suspended last school year, according to data released this month by the Maryland State Department of Education. The rates ranged from a low of 2.6 percent in Montgomery County to a high of 14 percent in Dorchester County. Baltimore City's suspensions rose this past year from 8.4 percent to 9.1 percent. Harford County was at 6.6 percent, Howard at 3.3 percent and Anne Arundel at 8.2 percent.
Most school systems in Maryland saw their suspension rates rise to their highest levels between 2003 and 2006, as school systems responded with stricter discipline codes to violence in the community and to fears stoked by the shooting deaths at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.
But those policies led to zero tolerance even for smaller infractions, such as talking back to teachers and poor attendance.
In more recent years, the state has been encouraging school districts to bring the numbers down by investing in programs that reward good behavior and focusing attention on students with the most severe problems.
And after a year of studying the suspension issue, the Maryland State Board of Education is expected to introduce a proposed policy next month that would reduce the amount of time a student can be kept out of school during the appeal of a suspension.
Few educators and advocates disagree that students should be suspended for violations that involve violence, and guns or other weapons. Of 17,949 out-of-school suspensions in Baltimore County, 285 were for weapons and 4,426 were for incidents that involved attacks, threats or fighting.
The largest category of violations that drew suspensions — about 8,800 — was for what the state defines as disrespect, insubordination and causing disruption. That's the category that Sundius believes could be significantly reduced with the right programs.
"It is really hard to change people's perceptions on this," said Sundius. "There are a large number of people who think that suspensions are appropriate. There should be consequences for bad behavior. It just shouldn't be kicking them out of school."
In total, students were suspended last year for about 20,000 offenses, about 2,000 of which were "in-school" suspensions. Often, schools set up rooms where students who are being disciplined do classwork or homework under supervision.
Some county school board members and administrators view suspensions as a necessity, while education advocates say the numbers in the county are unacceptably high.
The high rate "does not concern me at all," said Baltimore County school board member Michael Collins. Students who misbehave should not be allowed to prevent teachers "from working with the other 90 percent who are coming to school and playing by the rules."
But Sundius believes suspensions can hamper academic progress, especially among minority and special-education students who may suffer damaging, long-term effects. Moreover, those student populations are more likely to be suspended.
In Baltimore County, African-American students represent 38 percent of the school system's overall enrollment, but 62 percent of its suspensions. And students with disabilities represent 12 percent of the school system's 105,000 students, but 21 percent of the students who are suspended.
To address that trend, Hairston said he plans to propose mandatory training for school administrators "on student behavior and how to best meet the needs of our special-education population."
Often, special-education students act out because of their disability and are unfairly punished with suspensions, said Nicole Joseph, an attorney with the Maryland Disabilities Law Center who represents students with disabilities in the county. In those cases, she said, the students are supposed to be given support to change their behavior, not put out of school.
"We think a lot of the behaviors that are landing them suspensions are because of their disabilities," she said.
Baltimore County has invested in several alternative schools where students with suspensions of more than 90 days can go to continue their education while they wait to get back into their regular school.
"When a kid gets suspended in our school system, it is not like out with the wastepaper," Collins said. The suspension, he said, brings focus to the student's problem. "We are not abandoning those kids while they are on our rolls. We are doing everything we can to help them."
But Joseph said many of the alternative schools operate for only a few hours a day, or at night, and she doubts students are getting the required special-education services. She said she knows of students who had to go to two different night schools to get the courses they needed.
"It is very disruptive to take a child who is already dealing with an emotional disturbance, or some other disability that effects their behavior" and then suspend that student rather than providing support in a regular school, she said. Joseph said most of the suspended students she represents are autistic, have an emotional problem or attention-deficit disorder.
"Baltimore County has traditionally been a strong disciplinary county," said Dale Rauenzahn, executive director of student support services for Baltimore County. "The use of suspension has been and will continue to be a tool that we believe our administrators should be able to use."
But he said the county has been working on reducing the suspension rate and encouraging principals, teachers and other administrators to use other methods. "It comes back to, if kids aren't in school, they are not going to achieve," he said.
For instance, the county schools' handbook previously stated that if students were found with any amount of alcohol or drugs, they would be suspended for 180 days and sent to an alternative school. In surrounding counties, the punishment was far less severe: Students were generally suspended for 10 days and then allowed to return to school after they had received alcohol and drug counseling.
But Rauenzahn said that Baltimore County has changed the rule, and students now have the right to ask to return after five or six weeks, and after counseling.
Baltimore CEO Alonso has supported using alternatives to suspensions. He said he is puzzled by the city's slight increase in 2010, particularly if it continues this school year.
"We felt very strongly from the start of my administration that suspensions were overused as a response to problems of student conduct that masked deeper problems," Alonso said. "There is no question in my mind that if we see another increase, that is problematic in terms of our ability to intervene productively in the lives of our students.
"The data is very clear," he added. "Kids who are suspended more than once have the same kind of achievement gap as kids who are truant."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun