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Code of conduct allows principals to not suspend students for certain weapons

Baltimore students who bring a switchblade, pepper spray or other weapon that is not a firearm to school this year will not be automatically suspended under a revised code of conduct distributed to parents in the first week of school.

The revisions, which were not publicly vetted and not presented to the city school board, require principals to first take other measures, such as parent conferences, before imposing suspensions. In the past, those students would have been automatically suspended.

Similarly, principals are required to try other interventions before suspending students who possess, sell, distribute or detonate explosives — an offense that once called for automatic suspension and could have led to permanent expulsion.

Jimmy Gittings, president of the city's administrators union, objected to the changes. He has criticized the system's discipline policies as being too forgiving of disruptive and unsafe behavior.

"I feel it is unconscionable that a child would not be automatically suspended for having an explosive in the school, or having any kind of weapon in the school," Gittings said. "It is unconscionable that students could bring a deadly weapon to school and potentially put our teachers and principals in danger."

The new code of conduct also spares students who possess toy or water guns from being removed from the classroom — a change implemented after such high-profile incidents as the suspension of an elementary school student in Anne Arundel County because officials said he chewed a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun.

A city student was suspended for having a water gun last year, according to school officials.

Baltimore school officials said the revisions provide a range of responses for school principals to use before suspending students, and point out that as long as other interventions are tried first, suspension is still an option for a first offense.

Jonathan Brice, director of school support networks, said the code needed updating. He said the city's revisions were intended to help principals respond appropriately to more innocuous incidents, such as high-school students bringing cigarette lighters to school, or elementary students bringing butter knives and showing them off in the cafeteria.

"As a district, we haven't changed our policy on weapons or acts of aggression — they must never be tolerated on school grounds," Brice said. "But what we want to do is give a range of consequences that fit the incidents and encourage our school leaders to deal with things on a case-by-case basis."

Brice acknowledged that the 36-page code was "problematic" and that principals have complained it's confusing. Offenses aren't clearly matched with consequences in the document handed out to schools and to students to take home, and there is no mention of the kinds of incidents Brice said officials were trying to address.

"There is some confusion about what should occur, and we need to clarify that," he said.

In recent years, the school system has adopted a philosophy of not suspending or expelling students for less-serious offenses in order to keep them in school.

The city's code of conduct outlines four levels of consequences for student behavior, the lowest being "classroom support," such as a conference with the student, and the highest being a long-term suspension or expulsion. It also indicates which punishment administrators should use first.

Last year, the punishment for possession of explosives, such as firecrackers, smoke bombs and flares, and "other weapons," such as hunting knives, brass knuckles and tear gas, started with a long-term suspension. This year, the punishment starts with "intensive support," such as parent conferences, and removal of privileges, such as school field trips.

The system added a new offense — possession of a toy gun or water gun that is not used in an aggressive act — which does not warrant a suspension at all in the code.

Possession of any firearm, whether it is operable or not, automatically leads to an extended suspension or expulsion, according to the code.

School officials said they would provide principals with a clarification in the coming weeks.

They also said they plan to present the new code to the school board and the Parent Community Advisory Board. Both have also traditionally weighed in on the code of conduct, Brice said.

A representative from the Parent Community Advisory Board said she expects "full inclusion in these discussions going forward" but declined to comment further.

Shanaysha Sauls, president of the city school board, said that while changes to the code of conduct don't need board approval, input from parents and students is required. She said the district "has acknowledged the oversight and has guidance for future action."

Sauls also said the board understands that some schools need flexibility in how they discipline students.

The revisions to the code come amid a continuing debate about what behaviors warrant removing a student from school.

A national movement has emerged against "zero-tolerance policies," which led to high suspension rates for nonviolent offenses, particularly in urban districts like Baltimore.

A decade ago, 26,000 students — including a large number of black and special-education children — were being suspended, largely for offenses like insubordination and cutting class.

Then-city schools CEO Andrés Alonso directed principals to suspend students only for violent offenses, which led to an overhaul of the district's code of conduct shortly after he arrived in 2008.

He lobbied the school board to permanently expel students only when the offenses included arson or explosives. And he required that the central office approve long-term suspensions.

Subsequently, the system's suspensions were cut in half.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore area and the country have seen a number of shootings in schools.

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of a school shooting at Perry Hall High School, where a 15-year-old student opened fire in a cafeteria, striking special-education classmate in the back.

Baltimore has also had its share of weapons-related incidents. In 2008, a 15-year-old boy was stabbed to death by a classmate at William H. Lemmel Middle School.

In 2011, a 14-year-old student used his 41/2-inch folding knife to stab a classmate in the abdomen at Civitas Middle/High School. That knife would fall under the "other weapons" category this school year and possession of it would not warrant an automatic suspension.

Last year, to discourage zero-tolerance policies in Maryland school districts, the state board of education ordered systems to reduce suspensions for nonviolent behavior.

The move came after much-publicized examples of students being suspended for long periods of time, in some cases for seemingly minor offenses.

A Dorchester County girl was suspended for a year after a fight with her classmate resulted in a teacher being knocked down and trampled by a group of students.

And in Easton, two lacrosse players were suspended, and one was arrested, because their lacrosse bags contained a lighter and penknives used to fix their lacrosse sticks. The Talbot County school system suspended them because the items were considered weapons.

In March, an Anne Arundel County elementary school student was suspended over the gun-shaped breakfast pastry. The county school board is expected to review the child's appeal of the suspension at a closed session Sept. 11.

Brice said that as officials clarify the revised code, they may also require different punishments for offenses, depending on the student's grade.

"We may not have gotten all of the language 100 percent accurate, but we want to make sure that the consequence is equitable to the offense," he said. "We do not believe in zero-tolerance, but we do believe in safe campuses."

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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