Schools ad­dress a ris­ing trend

Af­ter years of de­clines, city of­fi­cials con­fronted by an in­crease in sus­pen­sions

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Erica L. Green

Bal­ti­more City schools sus­pended nearly 8,500 stu­dents last year — a 25 per­cent in­crease from the pre­vi­ous year — de­spite sev­eral years of ef­fort to re­duce the rate of dis­ci­plinary re­movals.

City schools CEO Sonja San­telises said the district is in­ves­ti­gat­ing what led to the in­crease un­der her pre­de­ces­sor, Gre­gory Thorn­ton. San­telises, who took over in July, sus­pects that many dis­ci­pline re­forms had un­rav­eled.

“Bal­ti­more was once a na­tional front-run­ner in this area, so this is dis­con­cert­ing,” she said. “But it’s not im­mo­bi­liz­ing.”

City sus­pen­sions jumped from 6,760 in the 2014-2015 school year to 8,443 last year. The sys­tem had the high­est num­ber of sus­pen­sions in the Bal­ti­more re­gion and the sec­ond-high­est num­ber in the state, be­hind Prince Ge­orge’s County. Statewide, sus­pen­sions were up by 11 per­cent.

School ad­min­is­tra­tors re­gard the trend as wor­ri­some, say­ing it is of­ten coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to re­move trou­bled stu­dents from the class­room. Re­search has shown that San­telises

“This is what these prin­ci­pals and teach­ers are do­ing — they’re get­ting rid of kids who are prob­lems.”

sus­pended stu­dents fall fur­ther be­hind aca­dem­i­cally and that such pun­ish­ment rarely im­proves be­hav­ior.

Ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cates say the in­creases may sig­nal a re­turn to zero-tol­er­ance dis­ci­plinary mea­sures.

Un­til last year, sus­pen­sions in Bal­ti­more had been de­clin­ing fairly steadily since 2004, when the district logged more than 26,000. By 2009, that num­ber had been cut in half un­der for­mer city schools CEO An­drés Alonso, who over­hauled the district’s dis­ci­pline pro­to­cols.

San­telises said the school district is mon­i­tor­ing school sus­pen­sions, which are cur­rently trend­ing at the same level as at this time last year. The district is en­cour­ag­ing schools to use restora­tive prac­tices, which call for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive re­sponses to mis­be­hav­ior that teach chil­dren con­flict res­o­lu­tion and re­la­tion­ship build­ing.

The district says it is mon­i­tor­ing which schools are us­ing such pro­grams.

Bal­ti­more school sys­tem ad­min­is­tra­tors worked to drive down sus­pen­sions over the past decade by fo­cus­ing on school cli­mate. They re­vised a code of con­duct to limit sus­pen­sions for mi­nor of­fenses, re­quired prin­ci­pals to take ex­tra steps be­fore kick­ing stu­dents out, and even gave bonuses to teach­ers in schools with low sus­pen­sion rates.

School of­fi­cials also held prin­ci­pals ac­count­able for sus­pen­sions in their eval­u­a­tions.

Karen Web­ber-Ndour, ed­u­ca­tion direc­tor at the non­profit Open So­ci­ety In­sti­tute, over­saw school safety in the city school sys­tem for three years be­fore join­ing the in­sti­tute, a part­ner in the school sys­tem’s ef­forts to re­duce sus­pen­sions.

Web­ber-Ndour, a for­mer prin­ci­pal who once worked for Alonso, said the school sys­tem had one of the most pro­gres­sive codes of con­duct in the coun­try.

She said she did “cli­mate walks” in schools that gave prin­ci­pals real-time feed­back about their school en­vi­ron­ments. She also bol­stered train­ing and helped im­prove track­ing of dis­ci­pline in­ci­dents.

“We had lots of tools,” she said. When Thorn­ton took over, such ef­forts “didn’t get the pri­or­ity they re­quired,” Web­ber-Ndour said.

San­telises said she found “a gen­eral lack of clar­ity” about school dis­ci­pline.

“In some ways, peo­ple aren’t re­ally clear what their roles are, in­clud­ing the roles and rights of teach­ers,” San­telises said.

The district is now con­sid­er­ing what role, if any, school po­lice of­fi­cers played in keep­ing dis­ci­pline num­bers down. Of­fi­cials are ex­am­in­ing whether schools that lost their school po­lice of­fi­cers saw a spike in sus­pen­sions. Thorn­ton, the for­mer schools CEO, re­moved of­fi­cers in April 2015 af­ter pro­posed state leg­is­la­tion that would have al­lowed them to be armed in school build­ings failed.

Web­ber-Ndour said she be­lieves there is cor­re­la­tion.

“In a com­mu­nity where school po­lice of­fi­cers have been em­bed­ded in schools, have formed re­la­tion­ships and have been seen as a per­son who main­tains safety — whether that’s good or bad — if you don’t have any­thing to re­place that with, then you’ve cre­ated chaos,” Web­ber-Ndour said.

Jimmy Git­tings, pres­i­dent of the prin­ci­pals union, said stu­dent be­hav­ior wors­ened af­ter the school po­lice were re­moved, leaving prin­ci­pals with no choice but to sus­pend prob­lem stu­dents.

Data shows that last year most stu­dents were sus­pended for “threats and fights” and “dis­re­spect and dis­rup­tion.”

“The rea­son sus­pen­sions have gone up is be­cause of the lack of school po­lice and more violent stu­dents in the schools,” Git­tings said. “Prin­ci­pals and teach­ers are just sick of this.”

Git­tings said he’s work­ing with San­telises to form a work group to ad­dress school vi­o­lence, and that feed­back from prin­ci­pals will help the sys­tem bet­ter re­spond to dis­ci­plinary con­cerns.

San­telises main­tained that the district has no tol­er­ance for vi­o­lence.

“We­have schools where we have to make sure there’s an or­derly en­vi­ron­ment, but we have schools who deal with very chal­leng­ing young peo­ple and do it with­out a zero-tol­er­ance ap­proach,” she said.

The school sys­tem is cur­rently re­vis­ing its dis­ci­pline pol­icy to com­ply with state law and clar­ify how sus­pen­sions should be doc­u­mented.

The Mary­land State Board of Ed­u­ca­tion passed new dis­ci­plinary reg­u­la­tions in 2014 end­ing a zero-tol­er­ance pol­icy that sus­pended large num­bers of boys, spe­ciale­d­u­ca­tion stu­dents and African-Amer­i­cans for mi­nor in­frac­tions. The board took the step a year af­ter fed­eral of­fi­cials is­sued na­tional dis­ci­pline guide­lines to curb ris­ing sus­pen­sions among those pop­u­la­tions.

School of­fi­cials said dozens of sus­pen­sions were over­turned last school year be­cause school ad­min­is­tra­tors didn’t fol­low proper pro­cesses.

Sab­rina Newby’s grand­son was one of sev­eral stu­dents whose sus­pen­sions were over­turned. An at­tor­ney at Dis­abil­ity Rights Mary­land found the school sys­tem had vi­o­lated the boy’s rights and de­nied him spe­cial-ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices when he was sus­pended for an of­fense for which he was ul­ti­mately cleared.

The four-month or­deal landed the ninth­grader in an al­ter­na­tive school where he re­ceived no spe­cial-ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices.

Newby said she was dev­as­tated when her grand­son, who read at a third-grade level, was kicked out of school af­ter a fight. Ad­min­is­tra­tors later de­ter­mined he wasn’t in­volved.

“I was sit­ting in the meet­ing cry­ing, say­ing he al­ready has [a dis­abil­ity], plead­ing with them not to do this,” she said, re­call­ing a meet­ing with his prin­ci­pal.

She be­lieves he was tar­geted be­cause of his dis­abil­ity.

“This is what these prin­ci­pals and teach­ers are do­ing — they’re get­ting rid of kids who are prob­lems,” she said.

Ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cates re­cently told the school board that its cur­rent re­vi­sions don’t go far enough to pro­tect stu­dents against un­just sus­pen­sions.

Jenny Egan, a ju­ve­nile pub­lic de­fender in Bal­ti­more and mem­ber of the Coali­tion to Re­form School Dis­ci­pline, re­cently told the school board that “even with the re­vi­sions, the pol­icy goals don’t em­body the spirit of restora­tive prac­tice.”

In writ­ten tes­ti­mony, the coali­tion, which in­cludes the ACLU of Mary­land, Dis­abil­ity Rights Mary­land and the Of­fice of the Pub­lic De­fender, also pointed out sev­eral other short­com­ings. For ex­am­ple, the pol­icy doesn’t out­line the rights stu­dents have dur­ing sus­pen­sion con­fer­ences, such as in­spect­ing their records and hav­ing an ad­vo­cate present.

The coali­tion cited sev­eral other ways the district had not fully in­cor­po­rated state reg­u­la­tions in its re­vi­sions. The group noted that the pol­icy failed to re­quire a find­ing of “im­mi­nent threat” or “chronic and ex­treme dis­rup­tion” for long-term sus­pen­sions.

Egan also noted that sus­pended stu­dents are re­quired to gather wit­nesses and make their own case to be al­lowed back in school. She said stu­dents should not have to bear the bur­den of proof to jus­tify their con­sti­tu­tional rights. The district also has not ad­dressed the is­sue of stu­dents be­ing sent home­but­not of­fi­cially sus­pended, which the coali­tion said was a com­mon oc­cur­rence.

San­telises said she has met with ad­vo­cacy groups and the district is adopt­ing some of the coali­tion’s sug­ges­tions.

Egan said the in­creased sus­pen­sions sig­naled that af­ter sev­eral years of progress, “some of those gains have been lost, and that is of great con­cern.”

Sab­rina Newby

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