The Baltimore County Public School System is suspending students at an increasing rate at the same time it is under pressure to reduce those numbers. The school system is in a balancing act of keeping schools safe while looking for alternatives to suspension.
Penelope Martin-Knox, the Chief of School Climate and Safety for the county schools, said she hears from those who believe the school system is taking it easy on disruptive students. She said that’s not the case.
Martin-Knox said, “So, when we have those who are saying we are not suspending kids and we’re not dealing with kids, that’s not accurate. Our numbers have increased over the years.”
In the previous school year, nearly 6 percent of county students were suspended or expelled. And that was up slightly from the year before. But attorneys who are monitoring Baltimore County’s approach to discipline are not impressed. Monisha Cherayil, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said suspensions don’t work and are setting children up for failure and putting them on a path that eventually could lead to dropping out and even jail.
“When you have a practice of kicking kids out of school because of disrespect or disruption, you’re going to invariably see the effects of bias that are hard to avoid or escape,” Cherayil said.
For instance, according to numbers from the 2016-2017 school year, African-American students made up fewer than 40 percent of enrollment but accounted for 66 percent of suspensions.
The Public Justice Center as well as Disability Rights Maryland say this is discrimination. They are monitoring the county school system and working with it to bring its discipline policies into compliance with state law, which says you can only expel a student or hand out a suspension longer than 10 days if there is chronic, extreme disruption, or an imminent safety threat. Cherayil said the school system is in violation of the law and that brings potential consequences.
Cherayil said, “Part of our goal in presenting to the school board is to make clear not just to the school board but to the community and local government decision makers that this is something the school district has to do.”
Cherayil said students are being suspended for infractions that have nothing to do with safety or violence.
But Abby Beytin, the president of the teachers union, Teachers Association of Baltimore County, disagrees.
Beytin said, “I know that they don’t just suspend a child in Baltimore County because they looked at a teacher and said a nasty word.”
Beytin said teachers want more support so children who are struggling in a regular classroom could be, perhaps, in a room with fewer children.
“So that they can learn the behavior that they need in order learn,” Beytin said.
Martin-Knox said the disproportionality of suspensions is happening because the demographics of students are changing faster than officials can react. For example, she said there are increasing numbers of students who are homeless or poor.
“And so giving others the opportunity to understand that all children are different, and we have to respond to them differently, sometimes leads to that disproportionality when we don’t understand how to address the behaviors,” Martin-Knox said.
And there are alternatives to suspension, These are strategies that try to teach students how to deal with and respect each other. But they cost money and take time. School board member Lily Rowe heads an anti-bullying task force. Speaking for herself and not on behalf of the board, Rowe said some students come to school having no idea how to get along with other students.
Rowe said, “And if they’re not learning that outside of school we have to teach that to them in the school.”
Rowe said gaps in society in meeting children’s needs are on display in the school house.