School Climate & Safety

Baltimore District Tackles High Suspension Rates

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 24, 2007 7 min read
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Driven by an increasing belief that zero-tolerance disciplinary policies are ineffective, more educators are embracing strategies that do not exclude misbehaving students from school for offenses such as insubordination, disrespect, cutting class, tardiness, and bringing cellphones to campus.

Increasing pressure from civil rights and youth-advocacy groups, which have been highly critical, in particular, of the disproportionate numbers of suspensions and expulsions of African-American boys, also have spurred a move away from one-size-fits-all policies, experts say.

Calvet Liburd, who coordinates the Sports4Kids program at Garrett Heights Elementary School in Baltimore, plays at recess with students last week. Organized activities cut down on mischief, and Mr. Liburd has never sent a child to the office for misbehavior.

Here in Baltimore, a communitywide movement to support alternatives to out-of-school suspensions got under way two years ago, largely at the behest of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, a locally run arm of the New York City-based Open Society Institute, the foundation set up by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros. With a mission to address issues that contribute to Baltimore’s chronic rates of poverty, dropouts, and crime, OSI- Baltimore zeroed in on the city school system’s disciplinary record.

Advocates for young people are concerned about the high numbers of students who are punished with out-of-school suspensions for what they say are relatively minor infractions. More often than not, the students who are suspended are those who can least afford to miss class—poor and minority students who lag behind their affluent and white peers in academic achievement.

“We had been agitating about this because we know that suspensions and expulsions are like the on-switch of the conveyor belt to the juvenile-justice system, and that so many of the incidents were not violent or serious,” said M. Jane Sundius, the director of education and youth programs for OSI-Baltimore. “And we found out that the city police and the high-level administrators in Baltimore were recognizing that zero-tolerance policies have their limits.”

Sports at Recess

Last fall, local philanthropies announced a $1.5 million investment in an array of alternative discipline programs run by outside groups on behalf of the 82,000-student district.

One startling number, Ms. Sundius reported: Twenty-five percent of the city’s juvenile arrests stemmed from incidents that occurred at school. And another: Seventy-seven percent of the children who were suspended in Maryland during the 2005-06 school year received no educational services while they were out of school.

The largest of Baltimore’s small but increasing number of grant-funded alternatives is offered by Sports4Kids, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit group that provides games and organized sports activities and teaches students to resolve conflicts peacefully.

The organization this year has programs in 11 Baltimore elementary schools, and it plans to add seven more campuses next school year, said Paul McAndrew, the director of its Northeast region, which includes schools in Baltimore, Boston, and Washington.

Sports4Kids has transformed student behavior inside and outside the classroom in its first seven months at Garrett Heights Elementary School, according to Yetty Lockett-Goodin, its principal.

To participate, schools must agree to provide daily recess to all students and pay $22,000 annually to help Sports4Kids cover its costs at each campus, Mr. McAndrew said.

Last school year, Ms. Lockett-Goodin was frustrated by the steady stream of students sent to her office for causing trouble during recess. Much of the playground conflict, she said, stemmed from quarrels between boys and girls. So she separated them: Boys played on one side of the yard; girls on the other.

“It did away with the chasing and hair-pulling and most of the reasons they were being sent to me,” said Ms. Lockett-Goodin, who has been the principal for 15 years at this 360-student campus serving pre-K through 5th grade. “But I still had 15 suspensions last year. That’s too high.”

This year, the girls and boys at Garrett Heights are back together at recess.

On an early spring day last month, 5th graders dribbled soccer balls, cheering for one another. They took turns with hula hoops. They jumped rope. And at the sound of a sharp whistle, they lined up in orderly rows, eyes fixed on Calvet Liburd, the site coordinator at the school for Sports4Kids.

Mr. Liburd, 23, is at the school every day, leading organized games at recess, working with individual classes for 40 minutes each week during “game time,” and running after-school programs. He mediates conflicts between students and has never sent a child to Ms. Lockett-Goodin’s office for misbehavior.

The 40-minute "game time" program teaches students to play without conflict and has improved classroom behavior, educators say.

“The climate in our school has changed dramatically,” the principal said. “Our kids have learned to play without conflict, and my teachers love what it has been done for behavior in the classroom.”

Office referrals are down. And suspensions for this school year as of late March: two.

Last month, “Coach Calvet,” as the students call Mr. Liburd, rounded up a group of 20 noisy 5th graders and started a game called “Match Me.” As he called out to them, they responded in unison with chants and claps. He touched his shoulders; they touched theirs. If there’s a disagreement over who lined up first to play a game, Mr. Liburd has taught the students to settle such disputes with the old-fashioned game of “rock, paper, scissors.”

Students who have been troublemakers in the past are often chosen to be “junior coaches,” a leadership position that teaches them responsibility and gives them a role in which other students will look up to them in a positive way, Mr. Liburd said.

Ms. Lockett-Goodin predicts that the behavior changes that Sports4Kids has brought to her school in its first year also will lead to better student achievement.

“I’ve watched these children become rule-oriented and respectful,” she said. “I know that those results are going to show up in the academics as well.”

Case by Case

Zero-tolerance discipline policies—adopted widely by school districts after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado—drove up the out-of-school-suspension rates nationally in the past several years by taking away the ability of administrators to deal with many student disciplinary issues on a case-by-case basis, said one expert.

“These situations are a rock-and-a-hard-place problem for administrators, especially in this era of zero tolerance,” said Jeffrey R. Sprague, the co-director of the Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior at the University of Oregon, a research institute that studies problems in student delinquency, school safety, and juvenile delinquency.

“Principals are ultimately responsible for having a safe environment at school, and they don’t always have the tools to deal with students in a nuanced way when it comes to discipline,” he said. “When push comes to shove, they can always send the troubled kids home.”

But with research that shows the harmful impacts of zero tolerance, and with pressures to avoid being labeled “persistently dangerous” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, school administrators are beginning to move away from discipline policies that mandate certain punishments for student offenses, Mr. Sprague said.

Calvet Liburd, left, known as "Coach Calvet," shares a laugh with J'von Evans, a 5th grader at Garrett Heights Elementary.

In the past decade, suspension rates in Baltimore’s public schools peaked at more than 14,200 students (not counting those who were suspended more than once), or 16.1 percent of the 88,000 children who were enrolled during the 2003-04 school year, according to data from the Maryland Department of Education.

Baltimore’s rate was significantly higher than that of the state’s two largest districts, Montgomery County, which reported a 4.6 percent suspension rate that year in a district of 136,000 students, and Prince George’s County, which reported a 9.7 percent rate in its 134,000-student district.

But since that time, Baltimore’s suspension rates have begun to drop. Last year, for example, 9,266 children were suspended, or 11.3 percent of the students in the district.

Charlene Cooper-Boston, the district’s interim chief executive officer, and Linda Chinnia, the district’s chief academic officer, declined, through a spokeswoman, Education Week’s request to be interviewed about the alternative programs.

The Baltimore district will soon start a thorough examination of its discipline code to determine how it should be updated, according to Ms. Sundius of the Open Society Institute, who is a member of a special committee set up to complete that task.

Other promising alternatives in Baltimore include the Meet-Me-Halfway mentoring program at Garrison Middle School, for students who would likely have been given out-of-school suspensions for their bad behavior. Instead, they participate in what is essentially an in-school suspension program, where they receive mentoring, tutoring, and other services, in addition to their regular instruction.

That program, said Ms. Sundius, has helped nearly eliminate out-of-school suspensions there.

Another of OSI’s grantees, the Baltimore Curriculum Project, is working on a project in two of the charter schools that it runs in the city to set up “restorative practices,” a strategy that teaches students how their misbehavior harms others and allows them to apologize for and address their mistakes.

“The children who are going to be suspended, which is a very serious consequence, are often the neediest kids academically, socially, and socioeconomically,” Mr. Sprague of the University of Oregon said. “Putting them out of school is as far away from the norm as a child can get, and it can create more problems than it solves.”

Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week as Baltimore District Tackles High Suspension Rates


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