Baltimore school suspensions fell last year

Suspensions in Baltimore city schools dipped last year as the district continued to reform its disciplinary practices to reduce the rate of students getting kicked out of school.

There were about 6,800 out-of-school suspensions and expulsions last school year, down from nearly 8,500 the year before. The nearly 20 percent drop comes as city schools CEO Sonja Santelises has put renewed emphasis on positive behavioral interventions.

“Instead of calling a child an imminent threat, we’re now taking a step back to think about what’s going on in the life of this child and how do we get that child support instead of saying that they shouldn’t be here,” said chief academic officer Sean Conley. Conley said the fall in suspensions comes at a time of increased awareness about the importance of supporting “the whole child.”

The district is working with schools and community partners to decrease suspension rates through methods such as restorative practices, a model that calls for schools to teach conflict resolution and relationship building.

“This is not a zero-tolerance district,” said Karen Webber, the Open Society Institute’s education and youth development director. “This is a restorative district.”

More than 40 schools utilized the restorative practices model last school year, and 79 used another behavioral framework emphasizing positive interventions. School officials predict suspensions will drop further as the district continues to implement these models in additional schools.

“It should lower the suspension rates because it signals a shift in the way we as adults look at our students and how we approach the challenges that lead to suspensions,” said Sarah Warren, the district’s newly hired executive director of whole child services and support.

District officials say educators must recognize that many city students come from low-income families and violent neighborhoods — experiences that may influence their behavior in the school building.

Research has shown that suspended students often fall further behind academically, and has found suspensions and expulsions increase the likelihood a student is arrested. Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately punished.

In line with national trends, black students in Baltimore are still suspended at higher rates than their peers; 9.5 percent compared to 3.25 percent for white students, and 2.8 percent for Hispanic students. Boys are suspended more often than their female classmates. And students with disabilities are kicked out of class much more often than students in the general population.

“Suspensions are one piece of the larger the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Kimberly Humphrey, of the ACLU of Maryland’s education reform project.

Humphrey said her organization will continue pushing for “meaningful implementation” of a bill passed by the general assembly earlier this year. It severely restricts the use of suspensions and expulsions for the state’s youngest public school students. Last school year in Baltimore, there were about 410 suspensions in pre-K, kindergarten and first grade, down from 490 the year before. The largest chunk of suspensions in Baltimore come in middle school.

Statewide data is not yet available to allow for comparisons across the region.

Over the past decade, district administrators have focused attention on the social climate inside schools and revised the student code of conduct to limit suspensions for minor offenses.

According to the district’s student discipline policy, “the removal of a student from the classroom should be the disciplinary action of last resort.”

The recently released city data shows most students were suspended for fighting, being disruptive, and making threats or attacking a student or teacher. The number of expulsions went from 80 in the 2015-2016 school year to just 10 last year. An expulsion, defined in the district’s policy, means a student is removed from their regular school program for 45 school days or longer. Suspensions can occur for a range of time periods, though the overwhelming majority of suspensions in city schools are short-term, meaning removal from school for up to three days.

Conley said his office is closely monitoring suspensions this school year.

“Any time you see a significant drop,” he said, “you want to make sure it continues in that direction.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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