Officials would only be allowed to suspend students for more than 10 days if they believe doing so is the only way to ensure the school is kept safe, under a draft proposal released Tuesday by the Maryland state school board.

The proposal is part of an attempt by the state to get school systems to reduce the number of days that students are sent home for nonviolent offenses, such as talking back, using a cell phone or being disruptive in a hallway.

"It is a goal to lead the state away from such heavy reliance on out-of-school suspensions of any length of time on matters that do not include threats of violence or public safety," said James DeGraffenreidt Jr., president of the school board.

The board also is calling for schools to eliminate the disproportionate number of suspensions for minorities and special education students within three years.

After more than a year of study, the state school board issued a 30-page report that outlines several significant changes that would move the discipline code away from the zero-tolerance policies of the past two decades. The school board has posted the report on its website and is asking for the public to comment in the next 30 days.

DeGraffenreidt said the board will introduce changes to the regulations in April.

"I really think they have got it right. They demonstrate what a sea change this is going to be for all of our school systems," said Jane Sundius, education director for the Open Society Institute in Baltimore.

The report also calls for the definition of long-term suspension to change from more than 10 days to 4-to-10 days. A new category of suspension, called extended suspensions, would last more than 10 days. In addition, the board proposes to do away with expulsions except in the case of a student who brings a firearm to school or uses a firearm.

In the report, the board expresses concern about the disproportionate number of black and special education students who are suspended each year. School systems with high numbers of special education and minority suspensions would have to create a plan to reduce those suspensions in a year and eliminate them in three years.

"We don't want kids suspended. We want the kids in school, unless there is no reasonable alternative," DeGraffenreidt said. "We are not dictating what happens, but we are giving them clear guidance on what we think is a reasonable way to rethink the use of disciplinary approaches, in light of the goal of having every student achieve career and college readiness."

In other business, the school board also approved standards for gifted and talented education, despite concerns that the standard does not go far enough to require school districts to ensure that minorities and students learning English as a second language are fairly represented among the gifted.

The standards require schools to identify students in pre-kindergarten who may need gifted classes in the future. Board members also said they will ask school districts to report on the numbers of minority students in their gifted programs.

Schools also would have to offer consistent opportunities for gifted students throughout their education.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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