There are better ways for Baltimore County to promote school discipline than suspending students

We absolutely sympathize with parents who complain about discipline problems in Baltimore County schools. No one should have to worry about whether their children will be bullied, threatened or even physically harmed by another child, and no one should have the feeling that the school system is failing to do anything about such behavior when it occurs. Whether the rise in reported bullying incidents in the county schools represents an increase in that misbehavior or simply better data, it is clearly too common. But returning to old discipline policies that emphasized out of school suspensions and zero tolerance/zero common sense approaches isn’t the answer. Not only were those policies racially discriminatory in their application — and about this, the data are quite clear — but they also failed to solve the underlying issues that led to the discipline problems in the first place.

The racial disparity associated with suspensions nationally, in Maryland and in Baltimore County is stark. In 2008, years before Maryland’s state school board issued new policy guidance steering districts away from the use of suspensions, black students were about twice as likely as whites to receive out of school suspensions. By the time the new policy guidelines went into place, the overall suspension rate in the state had declined, but the disparity actually got worse; black students were three times more likely to be suspended than whites in the 2013-2014 school year. In Baltimore County, even though the total suspension rate has been cut by more than half since the early 2000s, the racial disparity still persists. The system is about 39 percent African-American, but black students account for two-thirds of those given out of school suspensions or expulsions.

School board member Ann Miller cautions that we should not assume that a disparity reflects discrimination without evidence, the implication being, we suppose, that Baltimore County African-American students exhibit substantially worse behavior than white ones do. We don’t know of any research into that question in Baltimore County specifically, but there's an abundance of it from elsewhere (including a report this year from the Government Accountability Office) and it points to higher suspension rates for minorities than whites for the same infractions. In particular, blacks were subject to out of school discipline for non-specific offenses like “acting out” more than white students. That doesn’t necessarily indicate conscious bias; it could be that teachers and administrators subconsciously perceive discipline problems by minority students as more serious or threatening. A well publicized Yale study in 2016 found that to be the case even among preschool teachers, and even among those who are themselves minorities. Others have posited that the disparity stems from the increased likelihood that African-American students attend under-resourced schools with less experienced teachers and administrators. But whatever the explanation, the phenomenon exists.

And whom do suspensions help? They may remove a disruptive element from a classroom temporarily, but then what? They do not address any of the underlying causes of a student’s bad behavior, and they can actually make matters worse when the student returns by pushing the offender farther behind academically and alienating him or her more from the school. Removing a student from school can sometimes be necessary in cases of violence, but most of the time, it doesn’t help.

That doesn’t mean we should simply let bad behavior go unchecked. That’s not fair to the vast majority of students who do not exhibit serious discipline problems, nor is it doing the misbehaving students any favors. Indeed, there is a wide body of research into alternatives to suspension, including restorative practices (in which offenders must make amends for their bad behavior), positive behavioral reinforcement, and family-based interventions.

Those strategies work, but they are resource intensive and require a great deal of training and support for teachers and administrators. Baltimore County schools have taken steps to provide that — for example, this year’s budget increases the number of social workers, psychologists and school counselors. But even that leaves it far behind the recommended ratios for such crucial positions. District officials say they have placed new emphasis on evaluating and improving individual schools’ climates and on giving principals the tools necessary implement the positive discipline strategies that work best in their communities. But teachers and parents need to keep pushing the district to provide more training and resources. Out of school suspensions are much less common than they used to be, and they could be rarer still. But achieving that in a way that produces the best outcomes for all students requires a steady approach and a long-term commitment. Baltimore County should work harder to do discipline right and resist the calls to go back to ineffective, inequitable old ways.

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