A remarkable, positive change is coming to schools in Baltimore and across Maryland. Schools and districts are making a critical shift from inflexible, punitive and unfair school discipline practices and towards commonsense practices that nurture children, teach them appropriate behaviors and include consequences for misbehavior that help students learn—and stay in school.
This is a long-overdue movement from “zero-tolerance” discipline policies that led to harsh punishments for even minor infractions, often out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.
These misguided approaches doubled the suspension rate for students over the last three decades and fell most heavily on African American boys and students with disabilities.
With many partners, OSI-Baltimore worked for many years to get those policies changed in Baltimore City. Local success led to work with the state. And in January, the Maryland State Board of Education passed new disciplinary regulations aimed at ending unfair discipline policies statewide.
The change in Maryland came on the heels of another groundbreaking announcement as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder. released extraordinary new recommendations on school discipline policies. This guidance makes clear that schools must ensure that discipline policies are fairly administered and that they rely more on teacher training and behavioral support for students and less on suspensions and expulsions.With this groundbreaking move, Maryland becomes one of the first states to revamp its school discipline policies.
We at OSI-Baltimore have been advocating for change in this area for years.
We knew from compelling research that zero-tolerance policies and overuse of suspensions do not improve student behavior or school safety and climate. Instead, these rigid policies lead to student disengagement, higher dropout rates and, ultimately, to negative social and economic consequences.
It was particularly troubling that such policies lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for African American youth, males and students with disabilities. Worse still, they increase the chances that these students become involved in the juvenile justice system.
In 2003-04, suspensions in Baltimore City Public Schools exceeded 26,000. This extraordinarily high number galvanized OSI-Baltimore to begin its near decade-long effort.
We began a campaign to educate the schools and community about the overuse of suspensions and the need to change Baltimore’s discipline policies. We worked with school officials and parent, teacher and advocacy organizations to help the school system rewrite its discipline policy. A new Code of Conduct was adopted in 2008 that limited the use of suspensions and provided alternatives, such as after-school detention, anger management or conflict resolution sessions, as well as a wider range of graduated consequences for all infractions. Suspensions dropped by nearly two-thirds, falling to 8,600 by 2013. Additionally, dropout rates for African American boys fell by 49 percent and graduation rates for that group increased from one in two to two in three.
We then began providing support to the Maryland State Department of Education, working with its board and our partners. When the board completed its examination of discipline practices statewide, we supported their effort to show districts that nonviolent transgressions are teachable opportunities, not suspendable ones, and to revamp practices so that suspensions, when they are necessary, are handed out fairly.
And we shared facts about how zero-tolerance practices fall most heavily on African American and Latino students, which make this a key civil rights issue as well.
Fair and reasonable discipline policies will help Maryland students of all backgrounds. And despite critics’ assertions, the new state and national guidance will not allow dangerous students to stay in school. Students who are violent or bring weapons to school will still receive appropriate punishment— typically suspension or expulsion. But to handle more minor transgressions, there are many options. Over the next year, OSI-Baltimore will support trainings and programs needed to ensure schools are supportive and safe.
School should educate students about reading, math and technology, and also about getting along with others, disagreeing productively and learning from mistakes. The evidence simply does not support the use of suspensions as a behavioral teaching tool. Suspensions interrupt a student’s education, fail to show students why the behavior is not acceptable and don’t teach more appropriate behavior.
When we punish students by kicking them out of school for nonviolent infractions, we’ve lost the opportunity to instruct them. But when discipline practices change, students’ outcomes change—for the better.
And that is something for us all to cheer about.