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Black caucus to back ban on suspending youngest students

The Legislative Black Caucus will get behind a push to curb school suspensions and expulsions of prekindergarten and other young students.

Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the caucus, said Thursday the group will support legislation planned by Del. William C. Smith Jr. that would ban the practice.

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"How can you suspend children in pre-K?" Glenn said. "If you can't control children in pre-K, there's something wrong with the whole educational setup."

Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, told caucus members at an all-day hearing on a variety of issues that he will introduce legislation in next year's General Assembly session to ban suspending students in pre-K up through the second grade.

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He said research shows children that young do not understand the reasons they have been suspended and quickly fall behind when they are out of school.

Suspensions and expulsions of young children are a particular concern for African-Americans, Smith said. He said the Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights has found that while black children make up 18 percent of the U.S. school population, they account for 48 percent of suspensions.

Smith said the issue is especially important in Baltimore. He pointed to statistics showing the city had 33 pre-K suspensions in the 2012-2013 school year, while there was only one in Baltimore County. Smith said that in some cases students were suspended for such things as making gestures mimicking the use of a gun.

Baltimore receives about $29 million a year from the state for its pre-K program, Smith said.

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"When you're making this investment in pre-K and you suspend the students who most need access to this education, you're undermining your investment," he said.

Smith added that suspensions at a young age can set off a downward spiral leading to students' failing academically, dropping out of school and being incarcerated. He said schools need to find better ways of dealing with troubled children than sending them home.

The first-term delegate said he is working to build a coalition to support the legislation and is meeting with groups including teachers' unions and school boards.

Legislative advocate Kim Humphrey, who represented the Maryland ACLU at the caucus hearing, said her group will be on board.

Humphrey said research has shown that black children receive longer suspensions than white children for the same infractions, regardless of the race of the educator making that decision.

Smith's presentation received a warm reaction from the caucus. Some members wanted to go even further. Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, suggested a broader bill addressing suspensions at all levels.

But Smith said that for strategic reasons, he'd prefer to bring in a measure that's narrowly tailored to the youngest children. He said the bill hasn't been drafted but will be modeled on legislation being considered by the Council of the District of Columbia.

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