Following a series of serious assaults by students in Baltimore City schools, the Baltimore Teachers Union is recommending changes to the discipline code that would require school police to be notified more often when students break the rules.
A union task force made up of teachers, students, principals and parents presented its recommendations to the public at a news conference Friday morning at the union headquarters, only a few months after a staff member was shot inside Frederick Douglass High School in West Baltimore. “Our task force members took time to dissect the code of conduct to create stronger protections for staff and students,” said union President Marietta English.
Mayor Jack Young said city schools must have clear consequences for bad behavior, while still understanding the circumstances that many students come from. “They are hurting. Young people are are walking by drug dealers. They see dead bodies, and they think it is normal. They see despair. We have to show them another way. We have to change the culture of our young people, and we have to do it with love.”
The task force report comes as some community leaders across the nation are calling for harsher discipline, saying the pendulum swing away from zero tolerance policies several years ago has gone too far and made schools unsafe.
The state required school districts to reduce the number of suspensions for black students and students with disabilities, which were disproportionately large. State data also showed that students were being suspended for relatively minor offenses, including talking back to teachers and truancy.
The task force’s work was under way when a 25-year-old family member of a student walked into Frederick Douglass High School and allegedly shot Michael Marks, a special education assistant. Marks recovered from his injuries, but task force members say faculty and students are still haunted and traumatized by the experience.
Cheryl Colbert, an administrator for special education students at the school, said more counseling is still needed. “Everybody deals with situations differently. Some of our teachers were not equipped,” and the counseling they received has not been enough to return them to normal. Some staff never returned after the shooting, she said.
Task force members said they believe many teachers and students don’t know what the discipline rules are, including what the punishment would be for certain offenses. So the task force is calling for systematic training so that everyone understands the code of conduct. And the task force believes that all staff need to receive more in-depth training on strategies and programs like restorative practices that will allow them to help students deal with trauma and learn to de-escalate arguments.
But they are also calling for students to receive harsher discipline in some specific cases, including a case when an elementary school student has attacked another student.
In that case, the task force is saying a student can receive as much as a long-term suspension of up to 44 days or an expulsion, if they have received previous warnings and short-term suspensions for the same behavior. Currently, those young students can receive only up to a 10-day suspension.
The task force also calls for school police to be notified whenever one student assaults another. Sandra Davis, a classroom assistant who led one of five teams examining discipline, said her group wants that requirement inserted into the code because members believe assaults by students often spread into larger community issues. The requirement, she said, would not mean that school police would be called to intervene, but rather was a way for police to keep track of incidents, particularly when students transfer to a different school.
Karen Webber, education director for the Open Society Institute, said she is not concerned about that recommendation, largely because the Baltimore City school police chief has embedded officers inside schools. “They have been trained in restorative practices and de-escalation,” said Webber, who has followed school discipline issues for OSI for years.
“The response of the Baltimore City police has not been arrest and ask questions later,” said Webber. She said she strongly supports the recommendation that everyone in a school building and the parents be thoroughly trained in the discipline code.
City school administrators took part in the union task force and have begun to incorporate some of the suggestions into its rewriting of the discipline code. Lori Hines, director of student conduct and climate for the city schools, said she attended meetings and took back some of the suggestions, but could not be specific about the changes until the new code is completed.
The union also wants administrators to be able to give long-term suspensions to middle and high school students who use language that is “persistent, threatening or aggressive,” a recommendation Webber said she does not support because it goes too far.
The union recommendations are advisory only, and the city school board does not have to implement them.