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Maryland school board approves discipline guidelines

The Maryland state school board voted this week to distribute a set of discipline guidelines intended to be a model for school systems as they move away from zero tolerance policies of the past two decades.

The new detailed guidelines provide advice to school systems on how to handle disciplinary issues. They say, for instance, that no student should be suspended for disrespect. Instead, the guidelines suggest a student can be told to do community service, be removed temporarily from the classroom or be told to write a note of apology.

In many instances, the guidelines call for a more nuanced approach to discipline than has been used in some schools throughout the state. For instance, bringing a gun to school is cause for extended suspension and expulsion, but bringing a toy water gun would only be considered a minor infraction. Students who bring an implement to school that could potentially cause injury but is not intended to be used as a weapon would not be suspended from school either, although threatening another individual with the implement could result in an extended suspension.

A work group with members representing teachers, principals, administrators, school board members and other educators took part in a yearlong attempt to write the guidelines. In presenting the report to the school board Tuesday, Robert Murphy, a specialist for school completion and alternative programs at the state education department, and Katherine Rabb, from the Open Society Institute, both said the work group had been split on some of the guidelines.

The work group created a grid that delineates how far school leaders should go to discipline students in a variety of instances from failing to show up in a school uniform to carrying a weapon.

The guidelines are intended to supplement new regulations the state board put into effect earlier this year that require school systems across the state to reduce the number of suspensions. State school board leaders became interested in reducing suspensions after a series of high-profile cases indicated students were being punished too severely for some infractions. One high school student was expelled for a year from a school in Dorchester County after a fight and denied any access to an education during the year.

In another case, two Easton lacrosse players were suspended for carrying pocket knives and a lighter in their bag on the bus on the way to a game. The boys used the knives and lighter to repair their lacrosse sticks, but they were considered dangerous weapons. One of the boys was handcuffed by police and charged as a juvenile with a crime, then suspended by the school for 10 days.

Those reactions led state board members to spend two years considering how to rewrite regulations to ensure students are kept in school whenever possible.

Research has shown that students who are frequently suspended are more likely to be involved later with the juvenile justice system. African-Americans and special education students are suspended at higher rates than other students. The state board has told school systems they must reduce the disproportion of those suspensions.

But some school boards, principals and teachers have said the new regulations could limit the ways they can discipline disruptive students.

John Woolums, director of governmental relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said that while his organization had concerns that the guidelines would tie the hands of administrators, he believed the state school board saw the new guidelines as advice rather than a mandate.

Other counties have already taken steps to reduce suspensions. Baltimore County, which had one of the highest suspension rates of counties in the metropolitan area, has cut its suspension rate in half in the past several years.

About 100 to 200 of the state's 1,400 schools are considered "chronic suspenders," according to Murphy. 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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