Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Schools need help to address suspension rate

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Prince George’s County had more suspensions than any school system in Maryland in the 2006-07 school year. The state reported that 25,356 county students – or about 20 percent of the student population – was suspended last school year, up 3,000 from the previous academic year.

Of the county suspensions, more than 6,000 were for fights or threats of a fight; 10,366 were for insubordination or class disruption; 414 were for having a weapon; and 149 were for sexual offenses.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that school officials are starting to think outside the box. Principals are starting to experiment with nontraditional ways of dealing with disruptive students in an effort to minimize the impact on the youths’ education.

Many of their solutions may seem like common sense, but for years, following protocol seemed to rank higher than strong management.

A stronger effort is being made by school personnel to identify students at risk of getting suspended. Parents are also being contacted earlier in the process to put students on the right track, and in-school suspensions are being used more often so students don’t fall behind and aren’t ‘‘rewarded” with time away from class.

In some cases, rather than being sent home, students are assigned to work for nonprofit organizations while suspended.

Suspensions have grown so much that there are in-school suspension centers. At schools such as Oxon Hill Middle School, suspended students attend an Alternative Learning Center, and Northwestern High School in Hyattsville has a center where students continue to do class work with adult supervision.

The efforts are likely to discourage many who are simply seeking an easy way out of class.

The next step, however, is to address the root causes for the behaviors. Weapons in school, sexual offenses, large-scale fights — a sheriff’s deputy was recently attacked by three students as he attempted to remove one of them from class for being disruptive — must be addressed.

Students’ grossly inappropriate actions simply cannot be chalked up to societal changes.

A large part of the blame must be put on parents. Parental involvement must consist of more than being present when a punishment is decided; parents must take action when behavioral problems begin and be held accountable if they fail to seek help for their child.

Unfortunately, some children will not get the help they need at home. The bulk will need to be supported by a united effort between the school system, community, public safety and the county’s social services department.

When there are so many students being suspended that centers are called for, it is time to examine what’s going on with students instead of just finding a place to put them.