The cost of excessive suspensions

A stunning and utterly disturbing report from Texas released last month brought into sharp focus just how much strict school discipline policies are costing our children — and how much Maryland needs to do to reform its own approach.

The exhaustive study of nearly 1 million Texas students found that nearly 60 percent were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grades. Minority and disabled students were suspended at higher rates and were more likely to face stricter, out-of-school punishment, a trend that holds true in Maryland.


What's unique about this study is that researchers from the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Texas A&M University were able to track students for a full six years and document the consequences of disciplinary actions on students' academic success and later juvenile justice involvement.

About 15 percent of the students were suspended repeatedly, 11 times or more, and half of those eventually spent time in juvenile justice facilities. They were also more likely than their peers to drop out of high school or repeat a grade.


Bear in mind, only 3 percent of the disciplinary actions came for drugs, weapons and other offenses where state law mandates certain punishments. Those cases showed little racial disparity. Local school officials used their discretion on the vast majority of suspensions, many for nonviolent offenses such as cell phone use, class disruption or skipping school.

Several years ago, Baltimore school and community leaders realized that suspensions were far too high and were actually adding to the drop-out problem. In the 2006-2007 school year, more than one in 10 city students was suspended from school, causing them to miss collectively 106,000 days of instruction, often for minor infractions.

Community members, including the ACLU of Maryland and Open Society Institute-Baltimore, began advocating for change, and schools chief Andrés Alonso responded by dramatically overhauling the discipline code.

Serious offenses, such as those involving weapons and drugs, still result in a removal from school. But administrators can no longer suspend students for more than five days without permission from the central office. A revised code of conduct offers graduated consequences taking into account a student's age, prior behavior and the nature of the offense. Schools increasingly see suspension as a last resort.

The new approach has cut suspensions — and the lost instructional time — by a third, while the city's dropout rate and middle school absenteeism fell by half.

But many other Maryland school districts, including Baltimore County and several Eastern Shore counties, have higher suspension rates than the city does. When it comes to suspensions for "disrespect," every county except Montgomery has a higher rate than the city's.

Altogether, schools across Maryland suspended about 7 percent of their students in the 2009-2010 school year, or more than 57,000 students. African-American students were disproportionally represented, comprising about 38 percent of the state's student population but more than 61 percent of those suspended. Students with disabilities were also overrepresented. In some cases, schools summoned police for incidents that wouldn't be considered crimes beyond school grounds.

It's clear that Maryland needs a statewide approach to ensuring suspensions and expulsions are meted out fairly and sparingly. A legislative study task force has recommended as much. Nationally, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced in July the launch of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, which aims to address the type of policies and practices that effectively push students out of school.

But so far, the State Board of Education has focused only on the narrow issue of how to provide education services for students suspended for longer than 10 days. Even then, many county schools officials oppose any change, saying they already do enough.

That's unacceptable. The state constitution guarantees each child a free and fair education. Kicking students out of school for minor infractions is effectively denying them that right. It is the State Board's charge to fiercely guard the educational rights of students. We call on them to:

•Require the state to monitor district-level data for racial or other inequities in disciplinary actions, including excessive police referrals.

•Require school districts, particularly those with suspension rates higher than the state average, to develop plans to reduce them.


•Develop a system of sanctions for school districts that rush to suspend students for non-violent, first-time infractions.

Disruptive student behavior should not be ignored. But the evidence doesn't support the use of suspensions — they neither improve a school's climate nor change a child's behavior. Instead, suspension interrupts education and fails to teach more appropriate behavior. Students return to school further behind and less engaged in class, creating a cycle that is hard to break.

The Texas report points to the inevitable consequences of excessive suspensions: the school-to-prison pipeline that claims too many of our students. Maryland should be a leader in turning around these trends, limiting excessive suspensions and developing equitable and effective approaches to helping students succeed.

Jane Sundius is the director of the Education and Youth Development Program at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, which works to ensure that all Baltimore's children have access to effective public schools. Her email is jsundius@sorosny.org.

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