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City schools suspend fewer

The Baltimore Sun

Short-term student suspensions in Baltimore schools are down by more than a third compared with the same period last academic year, schools chief Andres Alonso told a City Council committee yesterday.

Between the start of the school year and Nov. 2, there were 2,354 student suspensions for 10 days or less in city schools, compared with 3,696 during the same period last year. The number of long-term suspensions of more than 10 days was relatively consistent: 313 this year, compared with 332 last year.

The decline comes as Alonso is discouraging principals from suspending students for nonviolent offenses such as cutting class and insubordination. He said he sent an e-mail to administrators earlier this year saying that he expects principals to have a good reason to suspend students for such offenses.

"I never want to suggest to a principal, 'Don't suspend,'" Alonso said in an interview after appearing before the council's education committee.

"What I want to suggest is, 'Use your common sense,'" he said. "I do believe a child being in school is the only way to intervene. ... You cannot suspend a system into good outcomes."

To help principals establish alternatives to suspension, Alonso said he will be reallocating money to schools in early 2008. Currently, city principals have only $99 per child in discretionary funding and, as a result, in-school suspension classes are few and far between, Alonso said.

He did not say how much money will be reallocated or where the money will come from, stressing that the school board will need to approve such decisions.

But since his hiring in July, Alonso has said repeatedly that he wants to cut central bureaucracy to send more money to schools and give principals discretion over spending.

In some cases, he said, principals may want to use their money to create more recreational activities to help prevent children from getting into trouble. Decisions will be based on the needs of individual schools.

Matter of discretion

The bulk of the decline in this year's suspensions came in areas where the decision to suspend is a matter of discretion. For example, there have been 101 suspensions this year for refusal to obey school policies, compared with 284 in the same period last year.

There have been 53 suspensions for cutting class, compared with 149 a year earlier.

The numbers for more serious offenses were generally the same, and in some cases, such as drug possession and theft, they increased.

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake sponsored a resolution recently calling for a hearing on the school system's suspension policies. That hearing was held yesterday before the council's education committee, as Alonso gave a lengthy presentation and answered council members' questions.

The council's resolution asked the school system to provide a list of specific infractions that result in suspension and the length of suspension for each.

Alonso said suspension decisions have been inconsistent: For a student in violation of the dress code, for example, the punishment could range from a letter home to suspension. Alonso said a committee is drafting a new student discipline code that will eliminate such disparities.

In September, the city school board authorized Alonso or his designee to sign off on every suspension longer than a week. Principals were previously allowed to suspend a student for up to two weeks without central office approval.

Alonso said being out of school for that long causes such disruption in a child's life that multiple administrators should be involved in the decision.

The school system saw an increase in suspensions last academic year after several years of decline.

Teachers' role

Teachers around the state have complained in recent years that they've been discouraged from recommending suspension for violent incidents because it would cause their schools to be labeled "persistently dangerous" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Alonso said yesterday that, too often, students have been suspended for minor offenses - such as being disrespectful in class - while major offenses - such as possession of a weapon - might go unreported.

No Child Left Behind lets states make their own definitions of a "persistently dangerous" school, and Maryland bases its definition on the number of suspensions for violent offenses.

According to the data Alonso presented, two of the three city schools with the highest suspension rates this year are schools run by the for-profit Edison Co.: Gilmor Elementary and Furman Templeton Elementary. The other school in the top three is Dr. Samuel L. Banks High.

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