Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO plans to get some assistance from Dr. Leana Wen by applying for a government mental health grant. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
We have a great deal of sympathy for teachers and administrators who must cope with disruptive students in class. The job of providing a high quality education to all the children in their care is hard enough, and behavioral problems among a few students can make it nearly impossible. But suspending troubled students is rarely the answer. Keeping a child out of school does little, if anything, to address the real problem, and it may make matters worse by allowing the troublesome student to fall farther behind in his or her work.
That's why the report by The Sun's Erica Green documenting a spike in suspensions in the Baltimore City school system last year is so disturbing. Baltimore had been one of the national leaders in seeking alternative forms of discipline and driving down suspensions, but last year's increase of nearly 25 percent suggested that the district's focus on the issue had slipped. To be sure, the situation is much better than it was a decade ago, when suspensions were four times the current level, but it is nonetheless clear that new schools CEO Sonja Santelises needs to put discipline reform at the top of her agenda.
Maryland's state school board regulations two years ago designed to move districts away from zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, out of a recognition that in practice they tended to disproportionately harm minorities and disabled students and that they did little to actually improve the school climate. Baltimore was ahead of the curve thanks to the efforts of advocates and the administration of former city schools CEO Andrés Alonso. The reduction in suspensions here was part of a larger effort to keep kids in school rather than giving up on the difficult cases, and it contributed to steadily increasing graduation rates — a trend that, perhaps not coincidentally, stalled out last year.
What's clear is that an effective strategy for reducing suspensions is about more than having good policies in the system's code of conduct. It's about training so that all principles and teachers understand not only the letter of the policies but also the spirit behind them. It's about constant vigilance from the central administration — something that appeared to be lacking during the tenure of former CEO Gregory Thornton. And it's about the superintendent setting the right tone — as the system's new CEO, Sonja Santelises, is now trying to do.
Among other things, Ms. Santelises has encouraged schools to adopt what are known as "restorative practices" to improve behavior. That includes assorted efforts to improve communication among students and staff to reduce conflicts and build relationships. It's not a new idea; some city schools already do it well, notably City Springs Elementary/Middle School, which has received national recognition for its efforts. The approach can involve a number of elements, including classroom circles to discuss issues, conflicts and feelings; peer courts; and mediated restitution for slights that might otherwise lead to fights. It requires a serious investment of time, attention and effort — and, at least in the training phase, money. But it works.
Suspensions, by contrast, do not. They may temporarily remove a distraction from the classroom but at much greater long term cost. A robust body of academic literature has documented the links between school suspensions and drop-out rates or even crime. A major study of Texas students published in 2011 showed not only that suspensions were meted out at much higher rates for minority students but that those who were suspended tended to face such discipline multiple times in their school careers — a clear sign that the punishment wasn't changing behavior. Why would it? Sending a student home eliminates any possibility for teachers and administrators to actually address the root problem.
Ms. Santelises has only been on the job a few months, but she has already shown an appreciation of just how much the success or failure of the city school system depends on more than the academic instruction teachers deliver in the classroom. City students have disproportionately been affected by trauma, poverty and neighborhood violence, and no effort to reform the system can succeed without addressing their social and emotional needs. Ms. Santelises' support for restorative practices dovetails neatly with her view that raising academic standards in the classroom will require more collaborative and interactive learning. Both center around interacting with students as they are, not as we might wish them to be. It's a promising approach, but it's not compatible with a climate in which suspensions are on the rise. She needs to restore the progress made under Mr. Alonso and see how much farther it can go.