Suspensions not the answer to bullying, Alonso says

Students who bully their peers should be allowed to stay in the classroom, Baltimore schools CEO Andres Alonso said Monday as he addressed several high-profile harassment incidents by urging parents and community leaders to step up their involvement.

"We believe that to punish children by excluding them and pushing them outside of school classrooms is something that does not work, will not work," he said in remarks at a news briefing at city school headquarters to discuss recent claims of chronic bullying.

"The children come as is. We don't choose them. We have an obligation to all of them."

Last week, the mother of a Gilmor Elementary School third-grader said that her daughter was bullied and threatened to kill herself by jumping out a window at the school. The school system said that the girl's teacher reported that she only said that she wanted to kill herself.

Seventeen students have been suspended from Gilmor for fighting and physical attacks on students and staff this school year, school officials said. Seven of those incidents were for bullying.

The school system, along with the city, is also facing a $10 million lawsuit after the grandmother of a 9-year-old special education student at Leith Walk Elementary claimed the boy tried to hang himself in the classroom after his teacher ignored his complaints of bullying. The lawsuit also says that the boy's teacher took pictures before going to his aid.

Alonso said he could not directly address the two incidents because of student confidentiality and pending litigation, but he denounced all bullying in city schools as "unacceptable," "insidious" and "intolerable." He also said it is a complex issue that school leaders will need help grasping.

"What is very, very clear is that we're dealing with something we need to get better at," Alonso said. "As long as there is an incident where any single child is feeling in some way that they have no recourse, then we're not being as effective as we can be."

But, he said, school officials aren't the only ones who share that burden.

"I feel strongly that families have a responsibility to deal with this in collaboration with the schools," he said. "Children are not taking bullying classes in the schools, it's not in our curriculum. They are learning the behavior from what they see all around them."

Parents said Monday that they mostly agreed with Alonso's responses to the bullying.

"It should start at home," said Carolee Cassie, the great-aunt and guardian of a third-grader at Gilmor. "If parents were teaching their kids right from wrong, and that they can't go around bullying people, they won't do it."

But Cassie disagreed with Alonso's position that suspensions do not work. Her great-niece was hit by another student and suffered a swollen jaw this year, and she would have liked to have seen her attacker suspended. "I think if the kids are bullying the other kids in school, yes, they do need suspension," Cassie said.

Gilmor parent Nakia Crampton said she believes that Alonso is right that suspensions will not solve the problem. "The kids are going to lose by being suspended and what do they gain?" said Crampton, who is the parent of a second-grader and kindergartner. "And there's no telling what they're going to do when they're home."

A "flood of support" has been focused at Gilmor, Alonso said. He said that school officials are "reviewing every single record to make sure the school has what it needs" to combat bullying. Beginning Thursday, the Maryland-based Mariposa Child Success Programs will being a six-part series on bullying for parents and teachers.

Alonso said the recent incidents indicate that school leaders need to also evaluate the system's protocol of responding to reports of bullying. While he stressed that no reports have been ignored, he said the actions taken by school leaders might be appropriate but are not always effective.

Vowing that he would not be defensive, Alonso praised the competency of school leaders and the progress made by the school system.

"I feel that we have made extraordinary progress in the school system in the last three years, and you cannot judge the progress that we're making by what happens in an individual classroom," he said.

Mental health professionals joined Alonso on Monday and stressed the importance of education and training, which the school system will focus on in the coming weeks.

Lauren Abramson, executive director of the Community Conferencing Center, which runs conflict resolution programs for city schools, said: "The Jerry Springer model of dealing with each other does not work. It's not helpful, and it's very pervasive."

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