Baltimore is making progress on limiting school suspensions

It’s almost a truism that kicking kids out of school for minor disciplinary infractions rarely leads to better behavior when those students return to class. On the contrary, the problem often is only likely to get worse the more times students are suspended and the longer they are kept out of school. Years ago the Maryland State Board of Education urged local school districts to limit out-of-school suspensions as much as possible and to find other ways to discipline youngsters — a seemingly commonsense reform but one that generated a heated public debate.

That’s why we were heartened by reports this week that the number of out-of-school suspensions in Baltimore City dropped sharply last year as educators increasingly emphasized positive behavioral interventions over more traditional forms of punishment. The city still suspends or expels far too many students every year, but the downward trend — a 20 percent decline over the previous year — suggests the schools are also finally beginning to make progress toward employing more effective methods of keeping their charges in line.

Here’s why that matters: Kids who are suspended or expelled from school are more likely to fall behind in their classes, to have to repeat a grade, to drop out of school altogether or to get into trouble with the law. Educators have long known that youngsters who get kicked out of school are often the very ones who most need to be there because of family dysfunction or domestic violence issues at home. Suspending or expelling them often just puts them back into the same situations that caused their behavioral problems in the first place.

Moreover, there’s ample evidence that low-income, minority and special needs students are disproportionately affected by so-called “zero tolerance” policies that are likely to result in suspension or expulsion. Recent studies have shown that African-American boys, for example, are suspended or expelled at two to three times the rate of white boys, while black girls are up to six times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white female counterparts. The numbers suggest that suspension and expulsion policies ostensibly aimed at enforcing classroom order also are clearly setting these youngsters up for failure.

City schools CEO Sonja Santelises has been insistent on building on the efforts of her predecessors Gregory Thornton and Andrés Alonso, both of whom made cutting school suspension and expulsion rates critical elements of their reform agendas. Ms. Santelises says teachers have become increasingly aware of the importance of supporting “the whole child” and are working to reduce suspension rates by teaching children how to resolve conflicts peacefully through negotiation and relationship building. Such restorative justice techniques are key to breaking the so-called school to prison pipeline that traps too many city youngsters in a vicious cycle of school failure, unemployment and crime.

The impact of the overuse of suspension and expulsion for nonviolent offenses that don’t affect school safety isn’t limited just to children in urban school systems, however. We’ve seen some absurd examples in recent years, such as the attempted expulsion of two lacrosse players for carrying a penknife and lighter used to repair their gear, or the suspension of a 7-year-old in Anne Arundel County for nibbling a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun. The controversy that ensued uncovered the fact that Anne Arundel was second only to Baltimore City in having the state’s highest suspension rates for pre-K, elementary and middle school students.

Those may be extreme cases, but they reflect schools’ eagerness to substitute inflexible policies for sound judgment or to deal with annoying or exasperating behavior by kicking a student out rather than seeking to address its cause. Kids are not disposable, and it is our responsibility as a society to educate them as they are. Baltimore seems be learning that lesson, and now it needs to keep building on it to make suspensions and expulsions truly the rarely used and short-lived disciplinary measures of last resort they ought to be.

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