Sticking to their guns [Editorial]

It's a mystery why Anne Arundel County school officials are insisting on digging themselves deeper into the hole they're already in over the suspension last year of 7-year-old Joshua Welch, a Park Elementary student who allegedly nibbled his breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun. At a time when school districts across the state are trying to reduce out-of-school suspensions, especially for younger children, sending a second-grader home on the pretext his breakfast was a dangerous weapon never made much sense. But rather than admit a lapse in judgment, the county is doubling down on its claim little Joshua was a classroom menace.

At an appeal hearing in April, school officials contended the boy was suspended not just for the incident with the pastry but also "for repeated violations of the code of student conduct" and the "ongoing classroom disruption" he created leading up to it, including a charge he struck another student. But Joshua's parents and their attorney, who attended the hearing with the boy, said that was the first they'd heard of any other behavioral problems because the disciplinary referral they received said only that he was suspended because he had a gun.

Last week, the hearing examiner issued his recommendation that the county uphold Joshua's suspension. Meanwhile school officials have denied his family's attempts to have the matter removed from the youngster's school records. Joshua's parents say they'll ask the state school board to reverse both decisions so their child won't be saddled with a blot on his record for the rest of his life.

We strongly doubt the boy will ever be turned away from a job or denied a government security clearance because of this stain on his escutcheon. Still, we don't envy the state Education Department officials who will have to sort out this tempest in a teapot.

This episode has all the hallmarks of a theater of the absurd, not only because school officials are persisting in their ridiculous claim that Joshua's pastry threatened his classmates but because they're now trying to substantiate that charge by citing behaviors that were never mentioned in their own initial account of the incident. It's all beginning to sound like the real reason Joshua was suspended was because the school had already tagged him as a troublesome kid and the pastry stunt merely presented officials with a convenient excuse to get him out of their hair.

And that points to an issue larger than that of this one child and his unusual story: Are Anne Arundel schools too quick to use out-of-school suspensions as a disciplinary tool for young children? The county has one of the highest suspension rates in the state for pre-K students, second only to Baltimore City, and its suspension rates for elementary and middle school students are comparably high.

The county's record on the issue suggests the schools there haven't yet gotten the message that suspending students for anything other than the most egregious offenses rarely leads to better outcomes for students and may actually make things worse when those kids return to the classroom and bring their problems back with them. Moreover, kids who are suspended are more likely to fall behind in their studies, drop out or get in trouble with the law. Schools should be doing everything they can to keep them in class.

That is why state Education Secretary Lillian Lowery has made reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions a priority and urged teachers and administrators to find other ways to discipline students, including in-school suspension, after-school detention, Saturday detention and out-of-school detention in places where students are still required to show up every day and continue to learn. The general rule ought to be that sending a child home because he or she is disruptive is rarely appropriate.

Because of confidentiality rules, we may never know exactly what happened in the case of Joshua Welch, but that's somewhat beside the point. We hope that he can move past this incident and return to a life of anonymity. The real issue is that it's almost inconceivable that any 7-year-old could pose such a genuine physical threat to his classmates or teachers that suspension would really be the only option. Anne Arundel officials have gone to great lengths to back up the school in its decision to suspend Joshua. How much better would it be if they made a comparable effort to give teachers the support and resources they need to handle disruptive kinds in the classroom?

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