The bullying of Terry Anderson’s son began, she said, in sixth grade at Sparrows Point Middle School.
He was kicked in the head, thrown against the lockers and choked. The bullies called him bad words — words the boy with learning disabilities didn’t understand, she said.
By the end of seventh grade, his mother said, he was saying he didn’t want to live anymore and was being taught at home through a Baltimore County public school program.
“Right now he is afraid to walk in the school building,” said Anderson, who blames the school system for not protecting her child.
Anderson is one voice among many parents pressing for tougher discipline for students in Baltimore County schools, which have the highest number of bullying reports of any large school system in the state — and the county’s reports are growing. These parents are speaking out at school board meetings and even going to Annapolis and Washington to add their stories to a national debate over whether the rollback of zero-tolerance discipline by Maryland’s state board in 2014, as well as Obama-era guidance, has made schools unsafe.
The guidance came after a copious amount of data showed that special-education and African-American students were being suspended at much higher rates than other students, both in Maryland and across the nation, even when the infractions were the same. Research also found that students who were suspended in school were more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.
The debate is tinged with partisan overtones. Conservatives on the county school board are amplifying a call this year by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to re-examine the 2014 guidance to school systems to lower suspension rates. On the other side are those who believe going back to the policies of the past will hurt African-American students. They urge more training for teachers and a more systematic approach to stemming bad behavior. In April, a nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office analysis reported that African-American students were still being suspended at higher rates than white students for the same offenses.
Says Ann Miller, a conservative school board member: “You could have the most egregious offenses and give no consequences. The effect is that we have escalating discipline issues in both frequency and severity. ... There are a lot of kids really suffering.”
“What is causing it is the pressure that is coming down because of the state discipline reforms,” she said.
In Baltimore County, reports of bullying and harassment have been rising quickly. In the 2016-2017 school year, the county reported to the state that 901 cases were filed, a 21 percent increase over the previous year.
Interim Superintendent Verletta White said she understood the concern of parents and was working to improve school safety. This year’s budget added 22 social workers, 18 psychologists and 18 school counselors. White created an Office of School Climate a year ago, and has more recently started a Student Behavior and Discipline Council that will dig into the issue.
“As a parent, I understand every parent’s desire to make sure that their children are safe when they enter our buildings. This is our No. 1 priority,” she said.
White doesn’t believe there are necessarily more discipline issues than in previous years, but she does believe the issues are different.
“We are seeing our younger kids acting out. We see kids who have to be taught how to resolve conflicts rather than resort to being physical,” White said.
Social media also has made bullying easier and more intense, she added.
Maryland was one of the first states to end an era of zero-tolerance discipline policies when in 2014 the state school board required school systems to use out-of-school suspensions as a last resort. Students who bring weapons to school or are violent still receive tough punishments, but the state sought to end what officials considered overuse of suspensions that sent home large numbers of boys, special-education and African-American students for less-severe infractions, such as talking back or truancy.
Baltimore County had some of the state’s higher suspension rates at the time. In the 2006-2007 school year, 12 percent of the county’s students were suspended and sent home for at least one day; the state average was 9 percent. But since then, school districts across the state have reduced suspension rates. The rate in the county dipped to an all-time low of 4.5 percent in 2014-2015, but has since risen to 5.5 percent, still above the state average of 4.5 percent.
Some parents argue that the pendulum has swung too far, and the board is considering rewriting student discipline policies.
Miller, the school board member, has suggested that administrators should no longer have discretion over what discipline a child should receive for a certain infraction. For instance, she said, when policies state that a principal “may” discipline a student for a certain behavior, the word should be changed to “will.”
Miller said the disparate suspension rates for African-American students, for instance, did not necessarily indicate bias.
“We cannot make assumptions that these disparities are due to discriminatory practices unless we have evidence of that,” she said.
Karen Webber, education director at the Open Society Institute Baltimore, said research clearly indicates that the high suspension rates for some African-American students “is based on people’s reaction to the race and color of students.” African-American and white children might be guilty of the same offense, but African-American children are viewed by their white teachers as more of a threat and are punished more severely, she said. When zero-tolerance policies were replaced in 2014, the new policies should have been paired with a change in practices in handling children with behavior problems, she said.
Teachers have complained about the new policies, she said, because they relied too much on putting students out of school rather than trying to change the bad behavior. She believes more school systems should use behavior management strategies that encourage positive behavior.
Baltimore County has the highest number of bullying reports of any large school system in the state, according to Maryland State Department of Education reports. For every 1,000 students in the county schools, there were nine reports of bullying. By comparison, Baltimore City had 4.4 reported incidents for every 1,000 students and Howard had 6.7.
White believes the high numbers are the result of the work schools have done to make sure complaints are easy to file. “We have greater numbers, but I think that is because we have greater awareness,” she said.
Courtney Lancaster, the mother of an elementary student, hopes to withdraw her son, who she said has been hit in the head with a rocking chair, intentionally tripped and then grabbed in the genitals by another second-grader. She saw no evidence that the child was being disciplined, although school leaders say federal law prohibits them from sharing personal information about a student with others.
Nicole Landers, who says her children were bullied and sexually assaulted in a county school, started a group called the Parent2Parent Network, which has expanded to other states. Landers believes “the discipline issues are being suppressed. They avoid disciplining” in schools. she said.
Landers also has been an outspoken advocate in Washington, and lobbied DeVos to rescind the 2014 guidance issued to school systems that was intended to stop disproportionate suspensions by race. She wants local school districts to decide how to discipline students.
Suspension rates are up, a sign that principals are not afraid to suspend students when it is warranted, White said.
Baltimore County PTA President Jayne Lee said she believes most county parents don’t want to go back to the era of harsh punishments.
“I think it is not so much that parents want a change in the policies as so much they want the policies to be equitably and consistently enforced,” she said. Some parents say a child can do the same thing several times before being suspended, and that different administrators carry out policies differently.
Parkville High Principal Maureen Astarita said discipline should be designed to change students’ behavior, rather than punish them. Suspending students usually results in their falling behind academically but doesn’t change behavior, she said.
On the other hand, she said, she has never been told not to suspend a student when it is warranted.