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News Opinion Editorial

Common sense in the classroom

It's always refreshing to see a large public institution encourage employees to exercise a bit more common sense in the performance of their duties. That's why, in principle, we welcome the city school system's revised student code of conduct that gives administrators more discretion in deciding how to discipline students who bring toy guns, water pistols or other inappropriate items to school.

Nevertheless, the lack of transparency in the way the recent changes were carried out was unfortunate. Predictably, it has left many principals, teachers and parents confused about what the new policy means — a situation that easily could have been avoided had the system taken the necessary steps to conduct an open, formal hearing process that would have addressed the public's legitimate concerns.

Under the old code of conduct, children caught with anything resembling a firearm or explosives were automatically subject to immediate suspension or expulsion. The school system has long had a zero-tolerance policy for weapons that could pose a threat to the safety of students and staff, and under the revised rules those infractions are still regarded as serious offenses requiring immediate disciplinary action.

But in the past the prohibition against dangerous weapons — and the severe penalties attached to it — has also been applied to relatively harmless items such as toy guns, water pistols and butter knives found in students' lockers or book bags. Sometimes children inadvertently bring to school things they intended to leave at home, and sometimes they simply don't recognize the consequences of their actions. While still inappropriate in a classroom, such objects are not by their nature indicative of any real intent to intimidate or harm others, and principals ought to be allowed some latitude in determining what penalties, if any, are appropriate.

In the last few years there have been a number of cases in Baltimore and other Maryland jurisdictions in which even very young students were subjected to suspension or expulsion for infractions that reflected more on their immaturity and lack of judgment than on any real danger they represented to others. One case involved an Anne Arundel 7-year-old who was kicked out of school for two days after officials claimed he chewed a pastry into the shape of a gun and waved it around. In another, Baltimore school officials meted out similar punishment to a city student caught with a water pistol in his possession.

In both cases, school officials invoked their systems' zero-tolerance policies as justification for imposing unreasonably harsh penalties — and insisted they were powerless to act otherwise given the inflexibility of the rules they worked under. But officials surely must realize that slavishly following "the rules" requiring them to act like unfeeling automatons encourages the public to view them as a lot less than the competent professionals they actually are.

Under the city's new rules, principals and other administrators are at least allowed to consider all the circumstances surrounding an incident before taking disciplinary action against a student. More importantly, they will now have the authority to substitute a lesser penalty than suspension or expulsion if they deem it appropriate and if it still serves the school's interest in protecting student and staff safety.

Baltimore's school system has made important progress in recent years to reduce the number of student suspensions and expulsions, which are almost always counterproductive because when kids who have been suspended return to the classroom, they bring back the same problems that got them kicked out in the first place. That's undoubtedly one of the strongest reasons out-of-school suspensions and expulsions should be a punishment of last resort for educators, not the first.

Baltimore's principals can still suspend or expel students for bringing to school firearms, switch-blade knives, brass knuckles, fireworks or other dangerous materials. But at the same time they won't be forced to act against their better judgment under circumstances where the threat to public order and safety is marginal at best. Kids with water guns or a cleverly chewed Pop-tart shouldn't have the bear the obloquy of a suspension or expulsion on their records for the rest of their academic careers.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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