Report shows students behaving

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The annual Howard County suspension report shows that, overall, only a small percentage of the district's 44,000 students misbehaved last year - as usual, from 5 percent to 7 percent. And though numbers of district suspensions are creeping up slowly, serious offenses in all the schools, such as sex-related incidents and arson, are going down every year.

But the devil is in the details.

The report gives school-by-school breakdowns of misbehavior - fights, class disruptions, cheating and alcohol and drug use, for example. It shows which schools had the most suspensions and which had the least. How many girls were suspended compared with boys; how many African-Americans compared with whites. Were there guns in the school, or kids who steal?

From last year's suspension report, released at a school board meeting this month, certain truths are unearthed:

A handful of schools have high numbers of suspensions; others have none. Suspensions for drugs and alcohol are increasing slowly at the middle school level. And some high schools have seen 25 percent to 30 percent increases in their drug and alcohol use.

For many administrators, however, the report is more than just a detailed account of good news and bad news. Among other things, it tells them stricter rule enforcement seems to be working, which incentive programs are most effective and which schools need more help from the community to combat certain problems.

Last year's report shows that on the elementary school level, Dasher Green topped the charts with 71 suspensions - an increase from the previous year and the highest for all elementary schools in the past three years. The next highest was Bryant Woods with 38. Other elementary schools ranged from no suspensions to 31.

Dasher Green's number is higher than administrators would like, Assistant Principal Diane Martin said, but many factors might have contributed to the increase, and the number shouldn't be taken out of context.

Last year was the first time Dasher Green has had an in-school alternative education program, for example, that targets students with chronic behavioral and/or academic difficulties. And the staff established a new behavior program that might also have caused a shift, she said.

"When you're implementing a new program, different things take place. Sometimes teachers become more strict," Martin said. "There's more concentrated efforts to make sure the rules are being enforced."

Seven elementary schools had no suspensions last year: Bushy Park, Centennial Lane, Clarksville, Manor Woods, Running Brook, Triadelphia Ridge and West Friendship.

That number is especially significant for Running Brook Elementary, which had 21 suspensions in the 1998-1999 school year.

Principal Marion Miller said a schoolwide behavior plan and having cooperative parents, a full-time guidance counselor and three years of a successful in-school alternative education program might have contributed to the drop. But she cautions that low numbers don't always mean a better school.

"You want to make sure you're not tolerating intolerable behavior. Anybody can have zero [suspensions] if they put up with anything and everything, and we don't," Miller said. "If our suspension rate goes up next year, I wouldn't consider that a failure. If children's behavior warrants a suspension, then they should be suspended. It's a dangerous precedent to set if you don't."

In the county's middle schools, many of the children suspended (42 percent) fall into a category called "behavior," a catch-all for various chronic wrongdoings such as continual lateness, back-talking or smart-mouthing.

"Any of the little things in a classroom that eventually become big things," said Eugene Streagle, the district's director of high schools, who compiles each year's suspension report. "When a kid gets suspended for 'behavior,' it's not a one-shot deal. This was probably the proverbial straw."

More than 400 middle school pupils were suspended last year for behavior. Insubordination - defiance of a teacher or administrator - is the second major cause of middle-schoolers' suspensions (17 percent); assault on another pupil is the next (16 percent).

Mayfield Woods Middle School had the highest number of reported fights and scuffles, 26. Other middle schools ranged from zero to 19. Both Burleigh Manor and Hammond Middle reported no fights last year.

Mayfield Woods Principal Susan Griffith said the school has adopted a "zero-tolerance" policy for pupil aggression, assault and fighting, and responds to any aggressive physical contact with suspension.

"Our school intends to send a strong message to our students that physical aggression will not be tolerated," Griffith said.

Streagle said rapidly growing enrollment figures might be cause for some of the schoolyard fights that occur every year.

"When I was a principal, there were a lot of things that started just because kids were bumping into each other in the hall," he said. "The odds of something happening - just because people are people - when you add to the volume of people, those numbers are going to go up."

The report shows that alcohol and drug use in the middle schools is slowly increasing as well. Nineteen middle-schoolers were suspended last year for alcohol and drugs, compared with 16 in 1998-1999 and 14 in 1997-1998.

Both Glenwood and Owen Brown middle schools had four such suspensions last year, more than almost any other school, except for Mayfield Woods, in the past three years.

Although only 1.9 percent of middle school suspensions were for drugs and alcohol, the rising numbers in earlier grades are a sign of the times, Streagle said.

At the high school level, behavior and insubordination are the two leading causes of suspension. But the third highest is drugs and alcohol. More than 150 suspensions on the high school level were related to liquor, marijuana or some other controlled substance, according to the report.

Glenelg and Long Reach high schools had the county's highest numbers in that area - and also the biggest increases. In 1998-1999, Glenelg suspended eight students for alcohol/drugs; in the 1999-2000 academic year, the school suspended 26. Similarly, Long Reach went from four suspensions to 24 for the past two academic years.

Long Reach Principal David Bruzga attributed the increase in suspensions for drugs and alcohol to school resource officers - trained police officers - who took permanent positions in the high schools last year. The police officers patrol the halls and parking areas and are on duty at school dances and sporting activities.

"With the school resource officers in the building last year, we had more tools available, more eyes and ears," Bruzga said. Bruzga said the school also made more use of the Howard County police "drug dog" for unannounced checks of lockers and cars.

"We just have better enforcement," Bruzga said.

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