Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Prince George’s leads state in school suspensions

Officials hope to curb numbers by keeping students busy while they’re being punished

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Prince George’s County’s suspension policies are being altered to have suspended students continue school work and fulfill community service hours as the county led the state in suspensions last school year.

Prince George’s, the state’s second largest school system behind Montgomery County, had the most suspensions of Maryland’s 24 school districts with 25,356 during the 2006-07 academic year, an increase of about 3,000 from the 2005-06 school year, according to data released by the state last month. That means that about 18 percent of county students were suspended last academic year.

Baltimore County, the state’s third largest school system, recorded 23,345 suspensions, about 3,000 more than in the 2005-06 school year. Baltimore City had 17,520 suspensions, an increase of more than 2,000 from the previous year.

With the number of suspensions rising, county officials said they would take nontraditional routes to keep suspended students from falling behind in the classroom.

Bill Ritter, head of the school system’s High School Consortium, an office that oversees county high schools, said administrators will begin sending suspended students to work for nonprofit organizations during their days away from the classroom. The school system is negotiating with the nonprofits, but an agreement should be worked out this year, officials said. During their suspensions, students would be able to fulfill the 36 community service hours required to graduate.

‘‘[Principals] have taken this step on their own ... because they know it’s the right thing to do. ... We want robust alternatives that can be used during the day” Ritter said.

A key to cutting suspension rates at high schools, Ritter said, would be stressing appropriate classroom behavior in elementary and middle schools.

‘‘We recognize kids are coming to our schools unprepared for high school, largely around the areas of behavior,” Ritter said. ‘‘This should be a major concern for every adult in Prince George’s County.”

Prince George’s school officials said parent liaisons and student personnel workers would now focus on contacting parents whose children consistently misbehave and targeting students who are considered ‘‘at risk,” or likely to be suspended after persistent classroom disruption. In-school suspensions, where students are isolated to a room to do homework during the school day, also would be used more frequently by administrators, said John White, school system spokesman.

‘‘So there’s no incentive to be suspended,” White said, referring to students who might try to be suspended so they can spend a day away from school. ‘‘[In-school suspensions] are better than being at home doing nothing or out on the street. ... They’ll be placed somewhere where they can learn from their mistakes.”

Bladensburg High School had the most suspensions in Prince George’s County last year, with 1,399 cases, an increase of more than 500 over the 2005-06 suspension numbers. Principal Andrea Philips-Hughes said the spike in suspensions was partly because the school introduced uniforms at the start of the 2005-06 school year. School faculty had to constantly remind students to tuck in their shirts, wear belts and follow other uniform rules, she said. When students disobeyed several times, suspensions were handed down.

‘‘Students slacked off,” Philips-Hughes said.

Crossland High School in Temple Hills was second in the county with 1,182 suspensions, a decrease from 1,927 from the previous year.

Prince George’s led the state with 6,507 suspensions resulting from fights or threats of a fight. Baltimore County had 5,488 fight-related suspensions, and Baltimore city had 5,350. There were 10,366 suspensions for insubordination or class disruption in Prince George’s schools, 10,243 in Baltimore County and 5,884 in Baltimore city.

Four hundred and fourteen Prince George’s students were suspended for having a weapon, 15 less than in Baltimore County schools. Prince George’s and Baltimore city had almost identical sex-offense suspensions — 149 in Prince George’s and 153 in Baltimore city. Baltimore County had 214 sex-offense suspensions.

Some county schools, such as Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, have introduced in-school suspension centers in recent years so suspended students spend their days under adult supervision doing school work. Students are required to participate in peer mediation sessions, where they talk with classmates about why they were sent to the in-school suspension room. At Oxon Hill Middle School, suspended students are placed in an Alternative Learning Center to serve in-school suspensions.

Suspensions for uniform violations vary from school to school, although most uniformed schools prohibit form-fitting pants or shirts, baggy pants, cuts or rips in any clothing, jeans, hooded clothing and sandals or flip-flops. There are 110 county elementary schools with uniforms, 22 middle schools and 20 high schools.

At Largo High School, administrators send a letter home when a student commits his or her first uniform-related infraction. The second infraction results in a detention and a third results in a one-day suspension from school. Further uniform violations could bring a longer suspension for students.

At-large county school board member Amber Waller said parent liaisons at schools with high suspension rates should keep in touch with parents whose children are frequently disciplined and risk being suspended.

‘‘It’s not necessarily just a school problem. [Parents] all have a role in [curbing suspensions],” she said, adding that schools should keep students in school during suspensions, especially when they are suspended for non-violent offenses. ‘‘We want to keep students in school as much as possible.”

E-mail Dennis Carter at dcarter@gazette.net.

Top 10

Bladensburg High School:1,399 suspensions

Crossland High School: 1,182

Suitland High School: 1,067

Oxon Hill High School: 990

Parkdale High School: 899

High Point High School: 885

G. James GholsonMiddle School: 867

Bowie High School: 761

Friendly High School: 717

Gwynn Park High School: 715

Source: Maryland State Department of Education