The Baltimore County School System is breaking the law when it comes to how it is disciplining its students. That’s according to attorneys who say they are monitoring the school system and offering to help it get into compliance.
The allegation is that too many students are being suspended and expelled for the wrong reasons.
Take, for instance a first grader at Chatsworth School, a public school in Reisterstown. Her name is being withheld at the request of the Baltimore County Department of Social Services because she is a foster child.
Latasha Minter, the foster mother, says she is doing well in school this year, but kindergarten at Lyons Mill Elementary in Owings Mills was another story. Minter says her foster daughter was sent home multiple times for
disruptive behavior, suspended, then put on a half-day schedule. Minter was directed to have her put in a psychiatric hospital. The advocacy group Disability Rights Maryland had been advising Minter, and one day someone from the organization gave her a call.
Minter said, “They were like, ‘well just to update you so we can close your case, is everything ok?’ And I said like, no, she’s just been hospitalized, she was out of school for a whole month and she’s on a half day schedule now. So they were like, ‘what?’”
Disability rights lawyers say the girl's case is not unusual. Students with special needs are being suspended or expelled because they are disruptive, when they should be on IEPs, an individualized education
program. The IEP puts in writing supports the school needs to provide special education students.
Megan Berger, an attorney with Disability Rights Maryland, said students who need IEP supports but don’t have them and are getting punished.
“Students are being repeatedly suspended, transferred to alternative schools, placed on a modified half-day schedule, illegally sent home,” Berger said.
The girl now is on an IEP, and has supports to help her control her behavior like taking breaks or going for a walk. Minter says her foster daughter's new school, Chatsworth, also offers a smaller class size. And so far this year, the girl has not been kicked out.
Renuka Rege, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said students, and not just special ed. students, are getting long-term suspensions who shouldn’t. State law says you can only suspend a student for more than 10 days or expel them if there is chronic, extreme disruption, or an imminent safety threat.
Rege said, “Because we’ve relied on exclusionary discipline like suspension and expulsion for so long, many people, whenever they see kind of a conflict or behavior problem in the schools they will default to that as being the only solution and the only approach that we can tackle this.”
The Public Justice Center and Disability Rights Maryland are monitoring the county schools, and meeting with officials to help them bring the county’s discipline policies into compliance with state law. Penelope
Martin-Knox, the chief of school climate and safety for Baltimore County Public Schools said while that’s happening, they are training principals and administrators on what the law says.
“But there are times when we have to suspend a child because his or her behavior is warranting it and we’ve exhausted all that we can do,” said Martin-Knox.
The percentage of county students who are being suspended is rising at the same time officials are looking for alternatives, More on that Friday.