Schools around the state already reducing suspensions

Delvond Grady disliked attending middle school at New Hope Academy so much, he began finding ways to get sent home.

"I started to do stuff, mostly just being all kinds of disrespectful, on purpose, just to get suspended," said Delvond, now a ninth-grader at the Baltimore school.

But the school's administrators decided they weren't going to let students like Delvond, who were being suspended for nonviolent offenses, take a few days off because they were bored. They changed their approach to discipline and have seen a precipitous drop in suspensions.

In the 2011-2012 school year, New Hope Academy — a middle/high school for students with behavioral problems — had a suspension rate of 41 percent. Today, it is 1 percent.

The school took these actions as the Maryland State Board of Education has spent years grappling with changes to its discipline policy. On Tuesday, the board is expected to pass regulations that will require school boards in every district to change their discipline policies to move away from the zero-tolerance philosophy of the past two decades.

Schools will no longer suspend students for poor attendance or more minor offenses such as talking back to a teacher.

The new regulations will also require schools to offer more academic support for students who are suspended, making sure they get their homework assignments and that teachers grade them.

Reporting student arrests and juvenile justice referrals to the state will also be mandatory, as well as reporting suspensions of minority or special-education students because members of those groups have been disproportionately suspended in the past.

Students will still receive harsh punishments for serious offenses that involve violence and guns.

Even before Tuesday's vote, schools around the state began using suspensions more judiciously, and the rates have dropped. In 2008-2009, 7.3 percent of students in the state were suspended for three days or more, but that dropped to 5.1 percent in the 2012-2013 school year.

Anne Arundel, which had a rate just over 9 percent, is now down to 5.4 percent. Baltimore City fell from 11 percent five years ago to 7.3 percent. Baltimore County's suspension rate of 12.4 percent in the 2006-2007 school year dropped to 5.3 percent.

"We saw what was coming both locally and federally. Two years ago we started on a very intensive staff development," said Dale Rauenzahn, Baltimore County's executive director of school safety and security.

He said staff stopped suspending students for minor infractions and began to focus on how to change behavior.

"We saw dramatic shifts in ... the culture of discipline in our school system," he said, although he added that schools must now focus on reducing suspensions of minority and special education students, which are still too high.

Kandice Taylor, principal of Golden Ring Middle School in Baltimore County, has cut her school's suspension rate in half in the past four years. She said several administrators have met individually with children who are misbehaving to talk about their behavior and their academic work at regular intervals. They are also finding new approaches.

Taylor said she recently had a boy who was arguing with a teacher. In the past, he would have been suspended for insubordination. Instead, Taylor said, she told him to research Cornel West, a philosopher and academic and the first African-American to earn a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University. The boy reported back to her as Taylor had asked, and she explained to him that West had persevered even when it wasn't easy.

"I think he learned a little more. I think the light bulb went off," Taylor said.

The rates have dropped even in some Eastern Shore counties with some of the most punitive discipline systems in the state. Dorchester County is down from a high of 16 percent some years ago to 10.8 percent today. And Talbot County, where two lacrosse players were suspended and referred to the juvenile justice system for carrying a penknife and lighter to fix their sticks, has dropped to 4.7 percent.

Despite working to reduce suspensions, many school administrators have been critical of the mandates in some of the new regulations because they would rather have support from the state than requirements. In addition, schools may need to add personnel as liaisons between students who are suspended and parents, which they say is an added expense.

"We are going to live with it and make it work, but we are concerned," Rauenzahn said. "It is going to cost some locals time and money."

James Young, director of New Hope Academy, said he took notice when the school's suspension rate started to affect other areas, such as attendance and academics.

"We realized that when many of our repeat offenders weren't getting the desired attention, nor the desired response, the behavior changed," he said. "They saw that they can display this behavior, but they're still going to have a day of school, not a vacation."

Delvond said administrators "started to know what I was doing and would work around it. A lot of the stuff I used to do before, they wouldn't suspend me for it. So I just stopped doing it. It was getting boring, because they would know."

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