Baltimore City schools suspended nearly 8,500 students last year — a 25 percent increase from the previous year — despite several years of effort to reduce the rate of disciplinary removals.
City schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the district is investigating what led to the increase under her predecessor, Gregory Thornton. Santelises, who took over in July, suspects that many discipline reforms had unraveled.
"Baltimore was once a national front-runner in this area, so this is disconcerting," she said. "But it's not immobilizing."
City suspensions jumped from 6,760 in the 2014-2015 school year to 8,443 last year. The system had the highest number of suspensions in the Baltimore region and the second-highest number in the state, behind Prince George's County. Statewide, suspensions were up by 11 percent.
School administrators regard the trend as worrisome, saying it is often counterproductive to remove troubled students from the classroom. Research has shown that suspended students fall further behind academically and that such punishment rarely improves behavior.
Education advocates say the increases may signal a return to zero-tolerance disciplinary measures.
Until last year, suspensions in Baltimore had been declining fairly steadily since 2004, when the district logged more than 26,000. By 2009, that number had been cut in half under former city schools CEO Andrés Alonso, who overhauled the district's discipline protocols.
Santelises said the school district is monitoring school suspensions, which are currently trending at the same level as at this time last year. The district is encouraging schools to use restorative practices, which call for rehabilitative responses to misbehavior that teach children conflict resolution and relationship building.
The district says it monitoring which schools are using such programs.
Baltimore school system administrators worked to drive down suspensions over the past decade by focusing on school climate. They revised a code of conduct to limit suspensions for minor offenses, required principals to take extra steps before kicking students out, and even gave bonuses to teachers in schools with low suspension rates.
School officials also held principals accountable for suspensions in their evaluations.
Karen Webber, education director at the nonprofit Open Society Institute, oversaw school safety in the city school system for three years before joining the institute, a partner in the school system's efforts to reduce suspensions.
Webber, a former principal who once worked for Alonso, said the school system had one of the most progressive codes of conduct in the country.
She said she did "climate walks" in schools that gave principals real-time feedback about their school environments. She also bolstered training and helped improve tracking of discipline incidents.
"We had lots of tools," she said. When Thornton took over, such efforts "didn't get the priority they required," Webber said.
Santelises said she found "a general lack of clarity" about school discipline.
"In some ways, people aren't really clear what their roles are, including the roles and rights of teachers," Santelises said.
The district is now considering what role, if any, school police officers played in keeping discipline numbers down. Officials are examining whether schools that lost their school police officers saw a spike in suspensions. Thornton, the former schools CEO, removed officers in April 2015 after proposed state legislation that would have allowed them to be armed in school buildings failed.
Webber said she believes there is correlation.
"In a community where school police officers have been embedded in schools, have formed relationships and have been seen as a person who maintains safety — whether that's good or bad — if you don't have anything to replace that with, then you've created chaos," Webber said.
Jimmy Gittings, president of the principals union, said student behavior worsened after the school police were removed, leaving principals with no choice but to suspend problem students.
Data shows that last year most students were suspended for "threats and fights" and "disrespect and disruption."
"The reason suspensions have gone up is because of the lack of school police and more violent students in the schools," Gittings said. "Principals and teachers are just sick of this."
Gittings said he's working with Santelises to form a work group to address school violence, and that feedback from principals will help the system better respond to disciplinary concerns.
Santelises maintained that the district has no tolerance for violence.
"We have schools where we have to make sure there's an orderly environment, but we have schools who deal with very challenging young people and do it without a zero-tolerance approach," she said.
The school system is currently revising its discipline policy to comply with state law and clarify how suspensions should be documented.
The Maryland State Board of Education passed new disciplinary regulations in 2014 ending a zero-tolerance policy that suspended large numbers of boys, special-education students and African-Americans for minor infractions. The board took the step a year after federal officials issued national discipline guidelines to curb rising suspensions among those populations.
School officials said dozens of suspensions were overturned last school year because school administrators didn't follow proper processes.
Sabrina Newby's grandson was one of several students whose suspensions were overturned. An attorney at Disability Rights Maryland found the school system had violated the boy's rights and denied him special-education services when he was suspended for an offense for which he was ultimately cleared.
The four-month ordeal landed the ninth-grader in an alternative school where he received no special-education services.
Newby said she was devastated when her grandson, who read at a third-grade level, was kicked out of school after a fight. Administrators later determined he wasn't involved.
"I was sitting in the meeting crying, saying he already has [a disability], pleading with them not to do this," she said, recalling a meeting with his principal.
She believes he was targeted because of his disability.
"This is what these principals and teachers are doing — they're getting rid of kids who are problems," she said.
Education advocates recently told the school board that its current revisions don't go far enough to protect students against unjust suspensions.
Jenny Egan, a juvenile public defender in Baltimore and member of the Coalition to Reform School Discipline, recently told the school board that "even with the revisions, the policy goals don't embody the spirit of restorative practice."
In written testimony, the coalition, which includes the ACLU of Maryland, Disability Rights Maryland and the Office of the Public Defender, also pointed out several other shortcomings. For example, the policy doesn't outline the rights students have during suspension conferences, such as inspecting their records and having an advocate present.
The coalition cited several other ways the district had not fully incorporated state regulations in its revisions. The group noted that the policy failed to require a finding of "imminent threat" or "chronic and extreme disruption" for long-term suspensions.
Egan also noted that suspended students are required to gather witnesses and make their own case to be allowed back in school. She said students should not have to bear the burden of proof to justify their constitutional rights. The district also has not addressed the issue of students being sent home but not officially suspended, which the coalition said was a common occurrence.
Santelises said she has met with the advocacy groups, and the school district is adopting some of coalition's suggestions.
Egan said the increased suspensions signaled that after several years of progress, "some of those gains have been lost, and that is of great concern."