Baltimore County students who are poor, African-American or disabled are far more likely to get kicked out of school. That’s according to a new report on behavior and discipline presented last night to the Baltimore County School Board.
African-American students make up less than 40 percent of Baltimore County’s student population, but last year they got handed 66 percent of the suspensions. It was the same story for special education students. They make up around 12 percent of the county’s students, but their suspension rate is double that. Poor students have higher suspension rates as well. Dr. Renard Adams, one of the authors of the study, told the school board last night poor students need more supports, and their numbers in the Baltimore County Schools have increased from 22,000 in 1998, to nearly 50,000 last year.
There were nearly 9,800 suspensions in the Baltimore County School System last year, a number that has has increased over the past three years.
The number one serious offense last year was students striking staff members.
School board members debated what the numbers in the study mean. Ann Miller remained unconvinced that the report definitively shows discrimination when deciding suspensions. Miller said what is missing from this report is data showing whether certain groups of students simply have behaviors that lead to suspensions.
She said behavior policies are implemented inconsistently across the county because school administrators, rather than the central office are allowed to make the decisions.
But Dr. Mary Boswell-McComas, a co-author of the study, challenged that notion. McComas said there is a difference between consistent and identical discipline. And she offered an example of a student she once dealt with as a school administrator.
“If I had been dictated to how to provide discipline to that student, that student not only would have been put out of their schooling, they would have gone home to what I knew was an abusive situation,” McComas said.
According to the Baltimore County Schools code of conduct, a principal can suspend a student for up to 10 days. Any longer than that, the decision gets kicked upstairs to the school superintendent.
State regulations require the county to create a plan to eliminate the impact of disproportionate disciplinary practices within three years.
School officials are looking at alternatives to suspension. One example of this is restorative practices, which creates the opportunity for a dialogue between a bully and his victim, for example, so offenders can take responsibility for their actions.
As for what else the county can do to get a handle on discipline, Abby Beytin, the president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said the schools need more resources.
The study also includes a survey on bullying and indicates a disconnect between school administrators and students as to how widespread it is. Just over 50 percent of the middle school students surveyed thought bullying is a problem in their school. More than 40 percent of high school and elementary school students surveyed said the same. However, fewer than a quarter of school administrators say bullying is a problem.
Education reporting on WYPR is supported in part by the Sylvan-Laureate Foundation.