In 2004, OSI-Baltimore learned that City Schools had given out more than 25,000 suspensions during the previous academic year. Alarmed by this incredibly high number, OSI-Baltimore began its intensive campaign to reduce suspensions in Baltimore City Public Schools. Why do we pay so much attention to suspensions? First, we know from experience—and research—that using suspension as a primary discipline tool is a recipe for school failure. When children are suspended, they are not in school learning, they are not being coached to adopt new and better ways of responding to conflict, and they are not being required to make amends for their misdeeds.
Typically, they go home, watch TV, and wait.
And when they return, they are behind in their schoolwork; they still don’t know how to behave appropriately or to make amends for their misdeeds. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that children who are suspended are more likely to be retained in grade, assigned to special education classes, get suspended again, become involved with the juvenile justice system, and drop out of school. And when many children are suspended, the entire school can suffer, because it is not just a few children who have missed their lessons,but a significant portion of the student body who are now behind. Compounding the harm is the fact that some children receive an unfair share of suspensions. In Baltimore and elsewhere, boys, children of color, Special Education students and English language learners receive a disproportionately high number of suspensions. In some cases three times as many.
As is usual practice, OSI-Baltimore tackled the problem in the city by speaking out, educating and writing on the topic. Education and Youth Development staff enlisted community and advocacy partners, provided grants to seed alternatives to suspension, and pushed to get the data and research about suspension in front of City Schools’ leaders. OSI-Baltimore then joined with the district to convene a school safety committee and provide support for expert facilitation and technical assistance. Under the leadership of the then newly-appointed CEO Andres Alonso, this groundwork paid off. With OSI support, City Schools overhauled its student disciplinary code and established a more preventive- and solution-oriented code of student conduct.
And the results? The number of suspensions was cut in half, and then fell to around 10,000 per year. Still too many in our view, but clearly a dramatic improvement. And by keeping more children in school, the district lowered its dropout rate and increased its graduation rate. Impressively, it was African-American boys that led the improvements.
The impact of fewer suspensions garnered media attention, putting Baltimore at the forefront of a growing national movement to spotlight the harmful effects of a zero-tolerance approach to school discipline.
The work is far from done, however. Despite dramatic drops in the number of suspensions, disparities in suspension, expulsion and arrest rates continue. This pattern of inequity, evident in Baltimore and across the state, caught the attention of the Maryland State Board of Education. In addition, the board saw the results of Baltimore’s new policies and began to examine discipline practices statewide. And because of the courageous leadership of the state board, the commitment of OSI-Baltimore and other education advocates, real changes are now underway across the state.
“We started working on school discipline practices in Baltimore, but we realized that the City was not the only Maryland district with high rates of suspension—some other districts were even higher than Baltimore,” says Jane Sundius, OSI-Baltimore’s director of education and youth development. Sundius noted that Maryland schools handed out 57,209 out-of-school suspensions in the 2009-10 school year and that 40,723 were for non-violent or “soft” offenses, such as disrespect, insubordination and disruption. In addition, there was a troubling range of suspension rates from one district to another. Dorchester County, for example, had a suspension rate of 14.5%, while Montgomery County’s rate was only 2.5%.
The inequitable distribution of suspensions is as pernicious as the overuse of suspensions statewide. Indeed, every district in the state is suspending students in a way that seems biased: students of color more than whites; and students with disabilities and students whose first language isn’t English at a higher rate than the general population. The differences are large and longstanding. The disparities in Anne Arundel County, for example, were so egregious that the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation of the county’s policies and practices.
OSI-Baltimore and advocates had been raising these issues with the State Superintendent of Schools for more than five years. Once the State Board began its investigation, Sundius testified to the state school leaders and, along with OSI-Baltimore Program Officer Katherine Rabb, presented compelling research, offered grant support to staff, and facilitated work groups to revise policies.
Their input, and that of advocates, has prompted the Maryland State Board of Education to propose new regulations regarding school discipline that are designed to reduce disparities, increase the use of alternatives to suspension, and increase the educational services available to students who are suspended out of school.
“Through our grant support and participation in workgroups, we’re helping Maryland become one of the first states to take on a broad-scale and progressive revision of its state-level guidance on codes of conduct,” Rabb says. “This process is the start of a concentrated effort to help local districts think about the rights and responsibilities of all members of the community and to ensure that discipline practices are equitable and graduated.”
For example, to address the board’s concerns about the overuse and inequitable patterns of suspensions across the state, the discipline workgroup is considering more in-school responses to misbehavior, such as counseling, peer mediation, detention, in-school suspension, and community service. Serious student misconduct would continue to be disciplined through suspensions or expulsions, but the new guidelines will result in referrals and interventions designed to help students correct their behavior and address issues that may contribute to their behavior. These less punitive approaches are strikingly similar to the recommendations that OSI-Baltimore made to city school leaders and that were ultimately adopted in the Baltimore Code of Conduct.
Addressing disparities in discipline is one of the most contentious parts of the proposed regulations and code of conduct revision. “Districts have never had to be accountable for differences in suspension rates among groups of students,” Sundius says.“This is the first time that the state is raising the issue of bias and asking districts to take steps to address it. It is a real hot button. Like all of us, school staff consider bias to be unacceptable and morally wrong.”
“What we want,” Rabb adds, “is not to assign blame, but for school leaders to recognize that disproportionality exists in school discipline and to begin the difficult work to eliminate it.”
Efforts to help establish a statewide “model Code of Conduct” for local districts to use as a benchmark have met with other objections, as well, Rabb says.
Some educators are justifiably concerned that state mandates will tie their hands, but most note that using alternative approaches take time and money. Our goal is to make sure classroom teachers know there are different ways to address discipline and that training will be enormously helpful in this endeavor.
“This is a multi-year process,” Rabb says, “but, we expect that the new regulations and guideline will lead to fewer and more equitable suspensions. Based on Baltimore’s experience, we expect these changes to reduce the number of dropouts and increase the number of high school graduates. That’s good news for all Marylanders.”