Tens of thousands of students are being suspended in Maryland for relatively minor infractions each year, the result of zero-tolerance discipline policies that critics say are harming some of the most vulnerable children.
One in 11 students in the state was suspended last year - enough to fill every seat in Anne Arundel County's public schools. The rates were much higher for African-Americans, special-education students and boys - who were twice as likely as girls to be sent home.
"What we see is that suspension and expulsion are overused and actually push kids who need education the most out of school," said Jane Sundius at the Open Society Institute, a nonprofit that has studied suspensions and expulsions in Baltimore schools .
The rate of suspensions in Maryland has risen over the past 15 years, as school systems responded with stricter discipline codes to rising violence in their communities and the fear fanned by the shooting deaths at Columbine High School in 1999. Many administrators believe a no-nonsense approach to misbehavior is needed to keep schools safe and ensure a good environment for learning.
But those policies have led to widespread use of suspensions for a myriad of less serious offenses - from poor attendance to insubordination. The consequences have been devastating for some children who fall behind academically or fail to get help to improve their behavior, according to parents and some superintendents who are calling for change.
National research has shown that students suspended multiple times are more apt to drop out or commit crimes. A study released Thursday showed that Baltimore teens who had been murdered or hurt by gunfire were likely to have been suspended at least twice and had a history of truancy.
But there are consequences even for high-achieving students who are put out of school for a week or two. They may struggle to keep their grades up and find their chances of getting into college compromised.
Suspension rates and punishments vary widely in the state.
Baltimore County's rate has doubled to 12.4 percent, about the same as Baltimore City's, while Howard County sends home only 4 percent.
But overall, the threshold for suspension has dropped sharply. Even kindergartners and preschoolers are suspended each year. In nearly every district, truancy is grounds for suspension.
Last year, a seventh-grade boy in Baltimore County was suspended twice for minor infractions, including giving what he believed was a playful slap, called a birthday lick, to the arm of another student, his mother said. When he later threw a cut-up tennis ball into the back of the head of a classmate, without injuring anyone, he was sent to an alternative school for 45 school days.
"I think this whole movement toward zero tolerance gave too many people license to say, 'You're a disruptive force in my class. I don't want you here,'" said Eugene Patterson, a member of the Anne Arundel school board.
Local educators, national experts and even critics of zero-tolerance policies agree that students who bring a gun to school, attack a teacher, distribute drugs or are guilty of other serious violations should receive long suspensions or expulsions.
But there is an intensifying debate in Maryland over how to deal with students who commit less serious acts. Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City have changed course this school year and are encouraging principals to reduce suspensions for lesser offenses. They believe students who are suspended are more likely to fall behind and fail state tests.
Some educators who are trying new approaches to discipline think that students who do something wrong, particularly in elementary and middle schools, need to be taught to behave correctly. "We don't send a kid to the office because they fail a math test; we re-teach," said Sally Pelham, an assistant superintendent in Anne Arundel County.
A few school systems, including Anne Arundel's, are trying to reduce suspensions by giving teachers a better understanding of the children's culture.
The children who are most harmed by disciplinary policies are the most troubled students, Sundius said. They are suspended multiple times as a principal tries to rid a school of a discipline problem, but often no one tries to understand the cause of their misbehavior and fix the problem.
Signs that Deontray Brown was headed for trouble appeared in fourth grade in a city elementary school when he was suspended for throwing objects across the classroom in fits of frustration, his mother, Kenya Lee, said. She asked for counseling for her son, but he received 10 minutes a week, she said, because the social worker came to his school only one day a week and had to divide her time.
"I wanted help, but I couldn't get it from anyone," said Lee, who is a single mother.
In sixth grade, he set the tip of a girl's ponytail on fire and was suspended for a quarter of the year, then transferred to a different school. The suspensions continued. Each time he lost more days in class and became angrier, Lee said. Lee quit her job, became PTA president and spent time in her son's classes, trying to keep him under control.
Never in all those years did the schools get to the source of her son's bad behavior, she said, even as she desperately tried everything she could to help him.
Last fall, at 16 years old, he stole a car while he was out of school on suspension, according to Lee.
When he was arrested, Lee said, she gathered all his school records and went to the judge, pleading for help for her son. He was diagnosed with a mental illness and sent to a therapeutic residential school in Vermont where he got counseling. His mother believed his behavior was improving, but while he was home on a short break in March, he ran away. Two weeks ago, he was arrested and charged as an adult with possession of a handgun and drugs. He is now in the city jail.
Maryland ranks in the middle of states nationally for the percentage of students it suspends, according to data from 2004. Fifteen years ago, 6.8 percent of students in the state were sent home, according to statistics released annually by the state Department of Education. In the past school year, 9 percent or 74,518 students were suspended.
Despite some people's perception that schools are growing more violent, state statistics show that suspensions for violence and weapons have fluctuated over the past nine years but were no greater last year than in the 1989-1990 school year. For example, student attacks on teachers and staff occurred at the same frequency last school year as five years ago.
When the suspension numbers are broken down by incidents, 37 percent are in the category of disrespect, insubordination and disrupting a class. Twenty three percent were for incidents involving threats, fighting or attacks.
Discipline policies and suspension rates vary widely across Maryland, from a high of 17.2 percent in Somerset County to Howard County's 4 percent. The variation depends on each school system's philosophy and the rigor with which principals enforce the rules.
There's one notable geographic pattern: Eastern Shore counties are generally the most aggressive in suspending kids, while their rural counterparts in Western Maryland have comparatively low rates.
Anne Arundel County suspended 9.8 percent, slightly less than a few years ago. Harford County suspended 7.8 percent of students and Carroll 4.9 percent. While most students spend no more than 10 days out of school, about a third of those suspended last year were suspended more than once.
Carroll and Howard counties seek alternatives to suspension whenever possible.
Rather than suspend students for smoking, disrespect or cutting class, administrators in Carroll County require them to attend Saturday school in Westminster, where they take classes on such issues as conflict resolution, making reasonable choices or the health effects of smoking. "We have zero tolerance for the behavior," said Dana Falls, director of student services in the county, "We do not have zero tolerance for kids."
Howard County offers support and counseling to students with behavior problems.
"The thing that too often happens with suspensions is that you come back and no one does anything differently," said Craig Cummings, coordinator of alternative programs in Howard County.
Even in the best of circumstances, a 10-day suspension can be traumatic, said the mother of a Howard County student. Her son, suspended for having a small amount of marijuana at school and required to attend drug counseling, had difficulty keeping up in his high-level, challenging classes.
"It doesn't seem very natural to punish students by making it hard to learn," said the mother, who spoke anonymously so her son wouldn't be identified.
Baltimore County has the toughest policies west of the Bay Bridge. It is "very rigid and very tough," said Dunbar Brooks, Maryland state school board president and a former Baltimore County school board member.
Some principals would rather strictly enforce the discipline code than make judgments because they feel they are less likely to be criticized by teachers or parents, according to Brooks. But many principals also believe in the policies.
"I do support zero tolerance. I think kids need to be very clear about where the line is," said Phillip Taylor, principal at Cockeysville Middle School. But he also believes that a school has to do everything it can to keep students in school. Many suspensions come after a series of small infractions, he said.
Deborah Magness and Brian Wagner, his two assistant principals, are charged with keeping track of those infractions. On some days, the chairs outside their offices are filled with offenders. Most are kids with the best intentions, who make a silly mistake as they navigate through the torturous middle school years. Their offenses are most often minor: they have pushed another student in a hallway, talked back to a teacher or said something mean to another child.
Baltimore County not only suspends a greater percentage of its students, but it also hands out more long-term punishments than other school systems. Last year the county sent 1,009 students to an alternative school for a quarter or half a school year as a punishment. By contrast, Howard County, which has half as many students, suspended only 107 kids for more than 10 days.
"Our major goal is to keep the schools safe. If the student is disrupting the school, then we have to make those tough decisions," said Dale R. Rauenzahn, director of student support services in Baltimore County.
Baltimore County has invested heavily in its alternative schools. It opened up a new school this year, which nearly doubled the number of spaces for students with behavior problems. With four alternative schools, night schools and two afternoon schools, the county now has places for 900 students, most of whom are sent there after a suspension.
Rauenzahn said alternative schools offer smaller classes and more remedial help and support services for troubled students. While most students do not want to go there, he said, he receives calls from parents whose children do well in that environment and want to stay.
But placement in an alternative school can be punitive, especially for high-achieving students, by disrupting their education. In those schools they have no access to honors or Advanced Placement classes and can end up far behind their peers academically, according to parents.
Baltimore County also takes a tough approach with alcohol and drug violations, meting out long-term punishments for a single infraction. A principal can send a student who comes to high school having had a drink of alcohol to an alternative school or night school for 90 days, or half a school year.
The same student in Howard and Anne Arundel counties would receive up to 10 days. Howard also requires counseling and the student is prohibited from taking part in extracurricular activities for about a month, said Craig Cummings, the superintendent's designee for suspensions in Howard County.
Nickolaus Trevino, 17, was suspended for the first week of his senior year at Centennial High School and lost his National Honor Society membership after a beer bottle was found in his hotel room while he was in China. A viola player, he was there touring last summer with a group of student musicians from Howard County.
He said losing the first week of school wasn't as bad as having his membership in the honor society taken away or worrying that his chances of getting into college would be compromised.
When it came time to write his college applications, he had to acknowledge the suspension and then explain what had happened. That, he said, was painful.
"I said, 'It was a mistake. I wish it had never happened. Please don't use it as a judge of my character,'" he said.
Months after his friends had either been accepted or rejected by the University of Maryland, College Park, his application had been held up for special review because of his suspension. In the end, he was accepted at College Park, though he has decided to attend the University of Richmond.
"We are talking one empty beer," said his mother, Lori Geros, who believes that penalty was too harsh. School officials would not comment on the suspension for privacy reasons.
School officials in some jurisdictions in Maryland are rethinking zero-tolerance policies. State education officials say they would like to see suspension rates come down and are encouraging schools to try a program called Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports. The program emphasizes development of a consistent discipline that rewards good behavior.
Today, 400 of the state's 1,400 schools are using at least part of the program, but so far it appears not to have reduced suspensions statewide.
While the program helps identify the 15 percent to 20 percent of students in any school who have discipline issues, many schools don't have enough staff - including counselors and social workers - to help change their behavior, according to Charles Buckler, director of student services and alternative programs at the state Department of Education.
In part, the problem is that it is harder to use in high schools, where the most suspensions occur.
Several new school superintendents in Maryland - including Baltimore's Andres Alonso, Anne Arundel's Kevin Maxwell and Prince George's John Deasy - are changing their systems' approaches. They're motivated partly by the federal No Child Left Behind law, which penalizes school systems for high dropout rates.
Alonso has told principals to reduce suspensions for the subjective, less serious infractions.
Anne Arundel has rewritten its discipline code to emphasize giving students more chances to learn good behavior before they are punished.
"We wanted to change the culture," said Leon Washington, director of safe and orderly schools in Anne Arundel. "I talked to [principals] about the importance of providing extra support for those students and keeping them in the building rather than having them ... on suspension."
Early reports suggest, he said, that there has been a decrease in the number of suspensions.
Anne Arundel is also running a similar experiment in four schools. The county assigned a teacher to each of the schools and gave them the job of keeping track of 10 to 15 of the students most likely to misbehave.
When a student at Wiley H. Bates Middle School begins acting out, the classroom teacher can call Tracey Bockmiller on her cell phone. She quickly slides into the classroom and sits by the offender, trying to get the student back on track. If that doesn't work, she said, she will pull the student into the hall or take him to her office.
Her cell phone is always on. It's filled with the numbers of parents of children she watches over. She calls them often, reporting the bad and the good news.
Bockmiller's students have spent 75 percent fewer days on suspension this year, compared with last year. Office referrals are down 72 percent. "The office isn't like the Ellis Island waiting room anymore," she said. "They are in class learning."
Gender and race
Suspension rates vary widely by gender and race. This chart shows the percentage of each group suspended in school year 2006-2007.
Boys: 12 percent
Girls: 6 percent
African-Americans: 14 percent
Whites: 6 percent
Hispanics: 6 percent [Source: State Education Department data]