Anne Arundel County public schools expel students at a rate higher than any other metropolitan Baltimore school district, but administrators say the numbers show the county is tough, not that students are out of control.
Anne Arundel schools expelled 3.9 students per thousand during the school year that ended in June, followed by Baltimore with 3.7 expulsions per thousand students, according to state and local school officials.
Baltimore County expelled 1.9 students per thousand; Carroll and Harford counties expelled no students. Howard County has not tabulated figures for the most recent school year, but in 1993 it expelled three students. The number does not include middle school students.
"We certainly know that the numbers are high, but we believe our No. 1 priority is the safety and security of youngsters," said Carol S. Parham, the Anne Arundel superintendent.
"You also have to look at the fact that our school system has zero tolerance for smoking, drugs and weapons," Dr. Parham said. "We have one of the most stringent anti-smoking policies. Students are expelled automatically on the third offense."
The disparity in expulsion rates also can be explained by varying definitions of the terms "expel" and "suspend," and by an attempt by administrators to find ways to keep students in school and reduce unflattering statistics.
Harford, for example, has a policy of not expelling any student, no matter the severity of the offense, said Albert F. Seymour, the county's deputy school superintendent. But long-term suspensions can last from six days to a year.
Baltimore County expels students for a maximum of 90 days.
The difference, then, is semantics. Also, expulsion could be seen as conflicting with Maryland's compulsory attendance law, which requires all students between the ages of 5 and 16 to attend school.
"Instead of expelling students, we refer them to our alternative education program," Mr. Seymour said. "We find it to be reasonably more successful in dealing with discipline problems."
The Harford program places disruptive students in a more structured classroom. A similar program has had some success in Carroll County.
Baltimore schools define expel as "permanent removal" from school but do not necessarily apply the rule that way.
"It's very rare for a student to be barred permanently from the school system," said Donna Franks, a spokeswoman for the city schools. "Most students are reinstated, often at a new school that can give them a fresh start."
Permanent expulsions are rare in Baltimore "because it really means you've given up, and we don't like to reach that point with our students," she said.
About 80 percent of the students expelled in Anne Arundel also are returned to the classroom, but only after signing a contract in which they agree to abide by rules regarding behavior.
Staying in the classroom
"When you expel a child, it's sort of putting them on the street," said Mary K. Albrittain, branch chief for pupil services in the state Department of Education. "If the reason for expulsion is serious, and the student is out for a whole year and had a borderline interest in school to begin with, it's difficult to get them back in the classroom after a year."
The reasons most often cited for suspensions and expulsions in Maryland are fighting, insubordination and disrespect, she said. Others include drug use or distribution, assaults on teachers, truancy and failure to follow school rules, she said.
Generally, boys are suspended and expelled more frequently than girls, the local statistics show. Statistics on race from all five districts were not available.
Finding ways to help those students is left up to the 24 school districts in the state because their policies and problems differ, Ms. Albrittain said.
Anne Arundel has a school for students with behavioral problems, the Learning Center, but Dr. Parham noted that other jurisdictions "are ahead of us in coming up with alternatives to expulsions."
Alternatives used elsewhere range from peer counseling programs and conflict resolution training to separate schools for delinquent students.
Saturday detention programs
Harford and Carroll schools have explored Saturday detention programs, in which students are required to attend school an extra day for misbehaving. In Harford, students who do well in the behavior modification program can return to a traditional classroom.
Carroll County has experimented with three "alternative" schools, said Richard J. Simmons, a Carroll pupil personnel worker.
"We have designed three distinctly different schools: One is for attendance problems, one for smoking violations and one for insubordination," he said. "It's a one-room schoolhouse approach. No frills, no media center, no physical education, no cafeteria, no changing classes. It's extremely successful."
In 98 percent of Carroll's discipline cases, students are given the opportunity to attend an alternative school, he said. In lieu of suspension, students can choose to attend a Saturday school program, he said.
Baltimore is experimenting with conflict resolution training at several schools, Ms. Franks said. "In one project, we're starting with elementary students, and we'll be following them through high school to see what effect the training has on their behavior in the long run," she said.
Baltimore County school administrators say they view their experiment with alternative schools as successful. The number of expulsions dropped from 637 in 1993 to 183 this year.
Of 705 students recommended for expulsion this past school year in Baltimore County, all but the 183 who were "truly expelled" were eligible for alternative school, a spokeswoman said.
Anne Arundel's alternative school was created to deal with the behavior problems of middle school students, ages 13 to 15.
That doesn't address the growing problem of elementary students who can't behave themselves, said Huntley Cross, the Anne Arundel system's expert on student discipline.
Developing different methods of discipline poses its own problems, though, Mr. Cross said.
"We're the 47th-largest school system in the country. But just because we're a big system doesn't necessarily mean you can do a lot more," he said. "It's much less expensive for Carroll County, which has fewer high schools, to create three separate schools.
"But we have taken a strong stance against serious disruptive behavior in schools," he said, because students "can't learn in an environment of fear."