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Guidelines aim to end disparity in school discipline [Commentary]

The nation's top cop and principal visited Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore this week, but not for reasons you think.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Douglass to release federal recommendations on school discipline policies that aim to lower out of school suspensions and ensure that they are no longer handed out to children of color at rates that are double or triple the norm. They chose to showcase Douglass, a school that had been classified as one of the state's worst, because of its improved school climate, student engagement and achievement. And they chose Maryland because of the work of its State Board of Education to improve its discipline regulations.

At Douglass, Principal Antonio Hurt, is working to make the school a place where students want to be — one that offers academic and social supports and the full range of activities that students identify with a thriving high school. As a result, dropout rates are down. Student attendance, test scores and graduation rates are up. Importantly, Douglass' renaissance has also included a significant shift in school discipline practices. Hurt has cut out-of-school suspensions nearly in half since becoming principal in July 2011 (206 out-of-school suspensions were handed out in 2009-2010 as opposed to 112 last year).

These decreases are evidence of a concerted effort by the Baltimore City Public School System — where out-of-school suspensions have dropped from a high of 26,300 in 2003 to fewer than 9,000 — and by the State of Maryland, where imminent changes in regulations have already begun to influence local districts' suspension practices.

As Attorney General Holder said at the press conference, "Far too many students are taken off the path to success…for minor offenses. To suspend or expel students for minor offenses is unconscionable."

When discipline practices change, students' attitudes and outcomes change noticeably. Hearing statistics such as those in the Baltimore school system, Duncan and Holder's message to other schools, districts and states is clear: Lower suspensions lead to higher achievement. Higher suspensions lead to student failure and greater chances of juvenile justice involvement.

"It is adult behavior that has to change," noted Secretary Duncan.

The new recommendations developed jointly by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice bolster research-proven arguments that zero tolerance makes zero sense. Among the new standards are developing safe, positive school climates that provide social-emotional programs and supports and use suspension as a last resort; ensuring that the role of law enforcement is limited and does not involve school discipline; and implementing and evaluating discipline practices to ensure they are nondiscriminatory, fair, age-appropriate, and effective.

This is not to say that reversing two decades of zero tolerance policies will be easy or cost-free. Changing the behavior of adults and students is complicated, hard work that requires resources. And addressing the racial disparities that are evident everywhere in our state will challenge notions of our unbiased character in very uncomfortable and unfamiliar ways. As an officially designated "turnaround" school, Frederick Douglass High School has benefited from federal funding to start it on a new, and more effective, path. Its success is also the result of its strong principal and hard-working staff. Schools across the nation will need courage, and the financial and human resources to replace exclusionary, biased discipline practices with supportive, fair and effective ones.

One might say that now is not the time — that we are already asking schools and teachers to adopt radically new teaching approaches and new performance standards — and that new discipline policies must wait until we have more time and resources. But we can't wait. Current practices exclude children from school — and do so in a discriminatory way. We must embrace both the federal recommendations and the new Maryland school discipline regulations if we are to fulfill the civil rights of all Maryland's children to fair treatment and to an education.

Jane Sundius is director of the Education and Youth Development Program at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore. Her email is jane.sundius@opensocietyfoundations.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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