State school board members still don't know her name, but a Dorchester County girl who was denied access to an education for a year is the pivotal figure in their push to abandon long-held zero-tolerance discipline policies across Maryland.

The 15-year-old's suspension for fighting drew little attention at the time. But it so angered board members that they launched a statewide review of discipline policies.

This month, the board is expected to propose regulations that would keep students, even those with behavior problems, in school as much as possible. The regulations would do away with more than a third of all suspensions, according to the state's data.

Specifically, the board says it will propose to reduce suspensions for nonviolent behavior, make districts reduce the disproportionate suspensions of minorities and special education students, and require students to get educational services when they are out for a long period.

Already, a number of local school officials say they are trying to move away from harsh discipline policies and toward a more balanced approach.

"We have taken this different look and different approach to provide teachers with support and administrators with support so that we can keep kids in the classroom and learning," said Leon Washington, director of safe and orderly schools in Anne Arundel County. For example, county officials are training administrators and teachers on how to pick up cultural clues in dealing with students of different backgrounds, and how to handle students who talk back.

Baltimore City has significantly reduced nonviolent infractions during the past four years after revising discipline policies. And Baltimore County, which has one of the highest suspension rates in the metro area, is trying to bring the numbers down.

"We are revising our student handbook to make sure that we are not over-identifying infractions that might warrant alternative solutions," Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said in an e-mail.

The proposals by the state board could stir some controversy, however.

Montgomery County, one of the few local systems that would comment on the proposals, said it is willing to work with the state but has some reservations.

"We have serious concerns about a policy that would limit out-of-school suspensions to only the most serious, violent offenses," said Dana Tofig, a Montgomery spokesman. "Some offenses, while not violent by definition, can create an unsafe, even threatening, environment for the staff and students of a school. It is important to remember ... there are victims that deserve to have their rights protected. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work."

'Back on track'

Maryland State School Board President James DeGraffenreidt called the Dorchester case the "genesis" of the board's call for change. After being held out of school for a year, "what is going to be different when the student goes back?" he asked.

The girl was a ninth-grader on Sept. 8, 2008, when another student bumped into her and made an insulting comment. When she started fighting with the other student, an administrator and teacher jumped in to break up the fight. "In the meantime, a crowd quickly formed, knocked the teacher down and trampled on her several times," according to the documents in the case.

The girl was expelled for a year, and given homework assignments after her mother called to complain about a lack of work. The state board wrote in its opinion that there was "no follow up, no grading, no interaction between the educators and the student for a full year."

When James Bell, the head of student support services for Dorchester County, later took his job, he reached out to the family.

"We sat down and talked about how to get her back on track. We have created ways for the young lady to get caught up. She is right at the end and graduation is in sight," Bell said, adding that the road for her has not been easy.

The student and her mother did not respond to requests for an interview.

Dorchester County's superintendent, Henry Wagner, who also has taken his job since the girl was expelled, said he wants to change the county's bad reputation for its discipline policies. Dorchester suspended 14 percent of its students in the 2010-2011 school year, the highest rate in the state.