Bill curbing suspensions, expulsions of youngest Maryland students nears final approval

Shirl Struck says her son, Noah, was getting suspended so often for acting out at Baltimore's Patterson Park Public Charter School that she had to quit her job.

Noah is 6. He has autism.

"It didn't seem to me that suspension should ever be an option for them," the 49-year-old nurse said. "I mean, who suspends a 6-year-old?"

Noah and other young students would be much less likely to face such discipline under legislation that's headed for passage in the Maryland General Assembly.

The Senate voted 32-15 Wednesday to severely restrict the use of suspensions and expulsions for public school students in pre-K, kindergarten and the first and second grades. The House of Delegates has approved similar legislation over strong Republican opposition.

The bill's Senate sponsor says the two versions are close enough that final approval by the legislature is nearly certain. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has not taken a position on the bill.

The legislation would put the force of law behind a policy the Maryland State Board of Education has tried to address through guidelines. Education advocates have long decried the practice of sending young children home as a way of addressing disciplinary problems.

The legislation would do away with expulsion as a penalty in almost all cases, and restrict the use of suspensions to narrow circumstances.

"Maryland for the past 10 years has been chipping away at its school suspension problem," said Alyssa Fieo, director of legal advocacy for Disability Rights Maryland. "This is really a very positive and promising step if it passes."

The legislation would require schools to adopt less punitive methods of addressing behavioral problems in young children. Advocates hope it will motivate educators to deal with the reasons children act out, instead of simply removing students from schools.

"It forces the school systems to, instead of taking the reflexive action of suspension or expulsion, to focus more on the restorative aspect," said Sen. Will Smith, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the bill.

House Minority Leader Nic Kipke said Republicans in that chamber thought there was value in suspensions, which force parents to meet with school officials to get their child reinstated.

"Most of us support the idea of ending suspensions for very young students," the Anne Arundel County Republican said. "But not at the expense of eliminating required parental involvement."

According to the Maryland State Department of Education, 2,363 students in pre-K through second grade were suspended during the 2015-2016 school year. Of those, 82 were in pre-K.

Some large jurisdictions have all but eliminated suspensions and expulsions in the lowest grades. Montgomery County, for instance, had no pre-K expulsions last year and only 11 for kindergarteners. Baltimore ousted 73 from kindergarten out of the 504 suspended or expelled statewide.

Supporters of the legislation say breakdowns of the data on the youngest students suspended are lacking. But statistics on K-12 expulsions show that such discipline is meted out disproportionately to African-Americans and children with disabilities.

While African-Americans make up 34 percent of Maryland's school population, Fieo said, they account for 64 percent of suspensions. Students with disabilities make up 11 percent of enrollment, but one-quarter of those suspended.

"We have to talk about the fact there is this implicit bias that exists," said Del. Brooke Lierman, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsosed the House version of the bill.

Parents and advocates say suspending a child who is between 4 and 7 years old does little good and much harm.

"I have yet to find any reports of a positive impact on behavior because of suspension or expulsion," Lierman said. "If you're not going to school, you're not learning."

Struck said the impact of multiple suspensions on Noah was deeply demoralizing.

"What Noah has learned from it is that simply, 'I'm a bad kid,' and that's so far from true," Struck said. "He's not bad. He's autistic."

Struck, a single mother, said the suspensions became so frequent she had to quit her job and is now unemployed.

She has moved her son to the noncharter Moravia Road Elementary School, where she says he's off to a better start.

Zafar Shah's son, Zakir, was first suspended from kindergarten at Mount Washington Elementary School when he was 5. Shah said repeated suspensions last year for disruptive behavior took a toll on his son, who would later be diagnosed with a learning disability and an anxiety disorder.

"They were awful. He would tell me late at night at bedtime that 'it makes me feel so stupid when they drag me from the classroom,'" Shah said. "Because of his suspensions, he felt he didn't have a place there."

Zakir has since moved to Creative City Public Charter School, where Shah said he has found the principal better attuned to dealing with students' individual needs.

The legislation would generally forbid expulsions and suspensions for the youngest students, but with some exceptions. A student still could be suspended or expelled for bringing a gun to school, for example, or if school officials and a mental health professional determine the student poses an "imminent threat of serious harm" to other students or staff.

In place of suspending young students who are disruptive, the legislation calls on school officials to intervene with "positive behavior interventions and supports," including referring a student to a specialized team to deal with their individual needs.

Kim Humphrey, legislative chief of the Maryland ACLU for educational issues, said guidelines released by the state education department in 2014 were intended to reduce the use of suspensions and expulsions. But she said few of the state's 24 school districts changed their polices in a meaningful way.

The state posted a 17 percent increase in suspensions for children in pre-kindergarten through second grade during the last school year, Smith said, after a few years of declines.

There was little opposition to the bill at its hearings. Smith said advocates worked with teachers, administrators and others before the General Assembly session to address their concerns.

One of the few groups to oppose the legislation was the Anne Arundel County school board. In written testimony, the board called the bill a "one size fits all" approach that would dictate policy to administrators and limit their ability to control disruptive behavior.

The voting broke mostly along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. The bill passed by veto-proof margins in both the Senate and the House.

Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the differences between the House and Senate bills are small.

"I'm confident the conference committee will come to some kind of good compromise," he said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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