Keep them in class [Editorial]

The State Board of Education took an important step toward improving educational opportunities for students throughout Maryland this week when it approved new regulations designed to reduce the number of young people suspended or expelled from school. Educators have long recognized that kicking kids out of classes for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses rarely leads to improvements in behavior and may even be counterproductive. The new policy aims to encourage teachers and principals to find alternative ways of disciplining students that allow them to remain in school whenever possible so they don't fall behind in their studies or develop even worse problems outside the classroom.

The new rules reflect a move away from the "zero-tolerance" policy that required educators to impose unreasonably harsh punishments on students for infractions such as talking back or poor attendance, and which often disproportionately affected poor and minority children. Most such offenses involved no real threat to the safety of other students or staff, and in some cases they simply gave teachers an excuse to get rid of disruptive or otherwise troublesome kids.

The board's action has sparked a backlash from some, particularly teachers who feel the new approach simply saddles them with the challenging task of dealing with disruptive kids. Certainly, school districts will need to give teachers better support and training, but recent experience suggests that the new policy is workable.

Since 2008, suspensions in Maryland schools have been drifting steadily downward. Overall, 7.3 percent of students in the state were suspended for three or more days that year, but by the 2012 school year that number had dropped to 5.1 percent. In Baltimore city suspensions fell from 11 percent in 2008 to 7.3 percent over the same period, and in Dorchester County, which had the state's highest rate of suspensions, the percentage of kids pushed out of school declined by nearly a third from just under 15 percent in 2008 to about 10 percent five years later.

The fact that during this period there was no sudden upsurge in student violence or breakdown in school order shows that the vast majority of kids who were suspended under the old rules posed no serious threat to themselves or others and that most of them could just as easily been disciplined by less harsh measures than suspension. Under the new guidelines kids can still be suspended for violent behavior or bringing weapons to school, but teachers and principals will have far greater latitude to use their discretion in determining what punishments are appropriate. The idea is to make suspension or expulsion a penalty of last resort rather than the first.

This change comes after a number of well-publicized incidents in which school officials clearly overreacted by suspending students, including some very young children, over issues that might have been better handled by a frank talk in the principal's office or by a school security officer. We're reminded of the case of the Anne Arundel County 7-year-old who was suspended from school for two days after officials claimed he chewed a pastry into the shape of a pistol and waved it around or of the Baltimore youngster kicked out of class for bringing a water gun to school. Yet even the absurdity of those decisions pales by comparison when one considers that Maryland school systems suspended dozens of 3- and 4-year-olds in 2013 and nearly 700 kindergartners the previous year.

Were all those kids deadly menaces whom teachers were powerless to correct other than by banishing them from the classroom? We doubt it. In fact, kindergarten (and pre-K) is the very place where children are supposed to gain experience using the basic skills of social interaction that allow them to learn and play well with others. That's why they're there in the first place. Kicking them out because they haven't fully learned their lessons defeats the purpose.

There will always be some kids whose behavior is so erratic, threatening or violent that suspension may be necessary. But such cases are exceptionally rare. One Baltimore city middle school that suspended 41 percent of its students in 2012 has a suspension rate of just 1 percent today. Educators have learned that alternatives to suspension — such as in-school suspension, after-school detention, Saturday detention and out-of-school detention in places where students are still required to show up every day and continue their schoolwork — produce better results over the long run and have the advantage of keeping kids where teachers can still keep track of their activities and monitor their progress. Simply kicking them out and hoping they'll return better than when they left is wishful thinking, and Maryland is right to change a system that puts thousands of its students at risk that way.

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