Baltimore's school board voted 5-2 Tuesday night to adopt a policy that allows students to be permanently expelled for setting fires or other violent acts that threaten the safety of staff and students.
The vote came after months of public comment and haggling over the details of the policy. In the end, the board and schools CEO Andr?s Alonso compromised. Alonso retained his authority to permanently expel students, but under more narrow circumstances and with a greater weight given to the student's home life and experiences, and right to due process.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland as well as Legal Aid attorneys representing students who had been expelled last year opposed the policy, as did many parents.
David Stone, a board member who had opposed the policy, decided to vote for it, saying that he believed the process had been "democratic" and involved productive debate among board members. George VanHook and Jerrelle Francois were the only two members to vote against the policy.
Alonso thanked the board and said the policy that was approved was "infinitely superior" to the one originally proposed. He said that he had taken seriously the public's concerns and had continued to revise the policy up until the last day.
Several members of the public criticized the school district for failing to make the final policy available before the vote.
The issue began when Alonso decided a year ago to begin permanently expelling students who set fires. More than 40 students, ranging from elementary school students to high-schoolers, were told they could no longer attend any city school. Parents faced the choice of either home schooling or paying for a private school.
The policy was questioned by advocates who said it might be illegal for the superintendent to tell an elementary-schooler that he could no longer get a free education, something guaranteed by state law.
The new policy says that in the case of students 16 and older, the school system must do a case history of students who are being considered for expulsion to find out if there are any mitigating circumstances in their background. Any extenuating circumstances would be taken into consideration when deciding punishment.
"The other significant change that was made is for those students 16 and older, that would be permanently expelled, we would provide them and their parents with counseling services to help them identify resources in the community so they could continue their education," said Jonathan Brice, director of student support and safety for the school system.
If younger than 16, students can be put in an alternative school for only 90 days, down from the 180 days that was first proposed. If the student takes part in a fire safety course, attends the alternative school regularly and doesn't get into further trouble, the student can return to his home school after 90 days, or half a school year. The district also could decide to keep the student in the alternative school and review the student's record each quarter.
If a student does not fulfill any of the three requirements, then Alonso can still "administratively withdraw" the student from the school system. The effect would be the same as a permanent expulsion.
Despite the adjustments, some advocates did not believe the board should approve the policy. Bebe Verdery, education director for the ACLU of Maryland, said the changes didn't go far enough. "The school system should create educational intervention programs to support the most troubled youth to change their behavior," she said.