Schools' punitive actions decline

The Baltimore Sun

Anne Arundel County's public middle and high schools have distributed fewer disciplinary referrals, suspensions and expulsions each year during the past two school years in an effort to increase student achievement and meet federal school safety standards, according to a newly released report.

The decreases came after school officials established in 2006 stricter guidelines for implementing certain disciplinary measures, as part of an effort to keep more students in the classroom and decrease inequities among racial and economic lines in disciplinary practices.

The number of expulsions decreased 93 percent from 399 during the 2005-2006 school year to 28 last year. The number of disciplinary referrals fell 11.3 percent, and the number of suspensions fell 4.3 percent during the same period.

The school system has narrowed the definition of what constitutes a mandatory expulsion recommendation to four instances: distribution of drugs, possession of a firearm, use of a weapon and a serious physical attack, according to Leon Washington, the director of safe and orderly schools.

In the past, principals made expulsion recommendations to the superintendent if a student had three instances of physical contact, had a second offense of drug possession, or was deemed a chronic classroom disruption. Now principals are being coaxed to deal with the issues in other ways.

School officials stressed that the strategy was not a soft approach on misbehavior, but a way to remedy behavioral issues in a more systematic way.

"We're trying to connect them with outside services," Washington said. "If there's a drug issue, we want to try to give them support. In some cases, if a student is having problems at one school, we may consider putting them in a new environment, with a fresh new start. The goal is to educate students, and if they're not in the building, we can't educate. We're constantly torn between the No. 1 goal, and that's keeping our schools safe, with educating all students."

At Annapolis High School, which has struggled with a high number of behavioral problems, Principal Donald Lilley said the number of referrals had decreased 42.8 percent during the 2007-2008 school year, from the previous year. Lilley said staff members have received training on how to better deal with students' disciplinary issues.

"A lot of things that we thought in the past, that students were being disrespectful, we were able to be a lot more sensitive and talking to the students," Lilley said. "[The teachers] are taking the time now to dig a little deeper. And it's paying off big time. Kids are just coming up and talking about a lot of issues that they're having. This was unheard of before."

Students' actions that in the past may have resulted in an automatic disciplinary referral - sleeping during class or an unapproved trip to the bathroom - are now being questioned first.

As Lilley put it, "What's going on at home? Finding out why."

The county Board of Education is set to examine the results of the report, which is part of the school system's strategic plan, at its next meeting. The goal is to eliminate disparities under all student groups, and under No Child Left Behind, reduce by 20 percent the number of students receiving referrals, suspensions and expulsions by 2012.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell formed a committee, headed by Sally Pelham, assistant superintendent for student support services, to study disciplinary practices in the county schools two years ago, which resulted in the changes to disciplinary criteria.

"We've spent a lot of time in this district realigning consequences with behavior, trying to create partnerships to better address the need to help these students and to keep them on pace instructionally," said Bob Mosier, a school spokesman.

The report also shows that during the 2007-2008 school year, white students, who represent approximately 67 percent of the 73,800 student body, account for 55.3 percent of referrals, 50.1 percent of suspensions and 53.6 percent of expulsions. Black students, who make up about 22 percent of the student population, account for 37.1 percent of referrals, 42.4 percent of suspensions and 28.6 percent of expulsions. Students receiving free or reduced meals account for 27.9 percent of referrals, 33.4 percent of suspensions and 25 percent of expulsions.

School officials also credit the decrease to an emphasis on programming such as the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program, a collaboration between the county, the state department of education and Johns Hopkins University and the Sheppard Pratt Health System, which trains teachers and administrators in disciplinary strategies.

"In the past, where a student would have been moved out of an instructional situation, there's been a shift to keep that student in the instructional setting but to rectify the behavioral issue," said Ginny Dolan, the county administrator of the PBIS program. "We're going to have the punishment fit the crime, and a lot of times, in the absence of not knowing what to do, you rely on the most extreme instead of saying, 'Let's work that out'."

The program, which began in 1999 at two schools, has since expanded to 67 of the county's 119 schools. About 500 schools across the state participate.

disciplinary measures in county schools

School year 2005-06 2007-08

Referrals 13,521 11,996

Suspensions 6,259 5,988

Expulsions 399 28

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