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Maryland schools to show more tolerance

Tough punishments for minor infractions reconsidered

- - Sunday, December 2, 2012

A 12-year-old Montgomery County student was being sent to the hallway for being disruptive in class. On her way out the door, she brushed up against her teacher. The student was suspended for 10 days for attacking an employee.

A Prince George's County teacher thought a ninth-grade student's tone was disrespectful when asking questions about a form he had to sign. That student was suspended for five days for disrespect.

Such zero-tolerance scenarios are what school districts across Maryland are hoping to minimize by updating their disciplinary policies, ultimately reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. The Maryland State Board of Education is also in the process of changing statewide policies.

The updates come at a time when school disciplinary practices are facing more scrutiny — the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit in October accusing the city of Meridian, Miss., as well as other entities, of violating students' rights by creating a "school-to-prison pipeline."

"We're seeing across the country an increase in more serious consequences for students for what was considered to be traditional disciplinary matters," said Judith Browne Dianis, who has done work with the school-to-prison pipeline since 1999 through the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization.

In some cases, punishment goes beyond just suspension and expulsion to become a criminal act. Ms. Dianis said there has been an increase in referring students to law enforcement for in-school incidents, which means students face consequences as severe as incarceration.

The Advancement Project is working with the state board in its effort to update the state discipline code to keep students in school and out of the legal system. Ms. Dianis, the organization's co-director, said the board is focusing on alternatives to out-of-school punishment, such as in-school suspensions and Saturday school.

"If you're not in class, you're less likely to graduate, and that's the ultimate goal," said Bill Reinhard, state Department of Education spokesman.

Severe zero-tolerance policies that allowed students to be incarcerated for minor offenses are what led to the Justice Department's lawsuit in Meridian. For example, students in Meridian can be incarcerated for dress code violations and flatulence in class, the Justice Department's findings letter states.

Maryland State Board of Education members are also concerned about disparities in treatment for minorities, a phenomenon Ms. Dianis said is common in the school-to-prison pipeline. Civil rights lawyers say Meridian's policies disproportionately affect black students and students with disabilities.

Prince George's County Public Schools have seen a decrease in suspension rates in the last two years, said Janice Briscoe, special project officer for the division of student services. She attributed the decline to several factors, including a shift toward a more "positive" approach to discipline.

Prince George's schools are working on a new "student rights and responsibilities handbook" after officials realized a high number of students were being suspended for "soft" offenses. The district is also implementing the research-based Positive Behavior Intervention and Support model in all of its middle schools.

While strides are being made on an administrative level, however, putting new policies into practice is another issue. Nicole Joseph, a lawyer with the Maryland Disability Law Center, said it is more difficult for the new discipline philosophies to trickle down to the ground level.

All of Ms. Joseph's clients have some type of disability, meaning they are twice as likely to be suspended out of school than the average student, she said. In order to make changes on the ground level, she said school staff need more training from experts on how to deal with children with behavioral problems.

Collaboration between the education side and law enforcement side is vital to help prevent the pipeline, Ms. Dianis said.

"A lot of places where we're doing work, the school districts and courts and police are coming together around the realization that they've got to stop criminalizing children," she said. "Unfortunately, it seems like the folks in Meridian haven't gotten that memo, yet."

Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, wrote in an email that the department hopes the case in Meridian will provide guidelines for other jurisdictions going forward.

Ms. Dianis also hopes the case will be a trendsetter and cause other school districts across the country to address the problem.

"When a society starts to treat children as criminals, it has become morally bankrupt, and I think that's really kind of where we are," Ms. Dianis said.