Locked Out of Learning

The following opinion piece appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore’s students go back to school today, but for far too many of them and their counterparts throughout Maryland, their return will be brief.

Schools have adopted school disciplinary policies that are deeply flawed. These “zero tolerance” policies are a reflection of our nation’s zeal to “get tough on crime,” and are a misguided reaction to violent tragedies such as the shooting at Columbine High School. These policies have increased schools’ use of their harshest tools for controlling student behavior—barring students from school, either temporarily or permanently.

Instead of being reserved for the most serious offenses, suspension and expulsion are now commonplace reactions to offenses that once were dealt with in school. For example, in Baltimore’s neighborhood high schools last year, the most common reason for suspension was cutting class. More than half of all suspensions and expulsions were imposed for truancy, class-cutting and nonviolent opposition to authority, such as showing disrespect for a teacher.

Expulsions and suspensions have reached epidemic proportions in Maryland. Statewide, 3,275 students were expelled in the 2002-2003 school year, up nearly 13 percent from the previous school year, according to data from Maryland State Department of Education.

During that same period, Baltimore schools suspended 14,356 students, 15.8 percent of the entire student body. A decade ago, the number of city students suspended was 9.4 percent of the student enrollment. Baltimore County also doubled its suspension rates over that time—from 5.8 percent to 11.6 percent.

Alarmingly, suspension is being used more often for younger students. In Baltimore, more than 2,000 children in pre-kindergarten through third grade were suspended in the 2002-2003 school year. These policies are also more likely to affect learning-disabled, poor and minority students.

Proponents of harsh school discipline policies argue that student behavior has deteriorated and that the rise in suspensions and expulsions simply reflects that trend. Many also hold that students who misbehave prevent others from learning and should be excluded from the classroom. Still others maintain that without severe disciplinary consequences, student behavior will deteriorate further.

Clearly, certain offenses merit strong discipline—among them violent behavior and the possession of weapons or drugs. But in the majority of cases, suspension and expulsion are inappropriate and deprive children of their constitutional right to an education. Removing children from school frequently sets them on the wrong path: It limits their achievement and impedes their ability to become productive adults. And, according to a number of studies, it is linked to higher school drop-out rates and increases the likelihood that youths will end up in the juvenile justice system.

Moreover, suspensions and expulsions do not create a climate in which the “good kids” can learn. In schools with high numbers of suspensions, the harsh disciplinary policy tends to be self-perpetuating. Even as the school excludes some students, others emerge as “bad apples.”

Finally, harsh disciplinary policies are not a deterrent. Instead, schools that routinely suspend and expel students foster a climate in which student behavior tends to escalate quickly from innocuous to explosive. Suspensions and expulsions in these schools are viewed as routine, expected events.

Both the state and the city have begun to address this problem. A state law adopted this year requires any elementary school with suspension rates above 18 percent to implement a state-tested intervention program emphasizing conflict resolution and other strategies.

In Baltimore, the high school reform initiative is working to create smaller schools with more supportive environments. Early evidence shows that these smaller high schools do, in fact, have significantly lower suspension, expulsion and student arrest rates. This is particularly true when they use community conferencing and other proven methods of resolving disputes and improving student behavior.

But if these disciplinary trends are to be reversed, reform efforts must identify school discipline as a primary focus; districts must create schools that support, rather than exclude, students. Baltimore has just begun to plan a major middle school redesign effort. Given that the majority of the city’s suspended students attend middle school, officials must not miss this opportunity to revamp disciplinary procedures.

Principals, parents, teachers, students and the public must recognize that “get tough” policies push students out of school, compromise their chances for success in life and rarely make anyone safer. They truly are practices that leave children behind.

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