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Discipline and Diplomas: Keeping Students at Their Desks

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April 24, 2014 11:52 am


The following post was written by Donique Reid, a policy and advocacy intern at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

In January, individuals crowded into Frederick Douglas High School in Maryland to listen as federal officials praised the school district for reducing student suspensions. The event came shortly after the US Departments of Education and Justice issued new federal guidance around school discipline policies. The new policies emphasize restorative justice and aim to end practices that often disproportionately discriminate against students of color.

In an address to the nation, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, acknowledged that under current school discipline policies across the nation, students of color and those with disabilities are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection on school discipline, African American students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students, even when they commit similar offenses. The new guidance encourages states to amend policies that target specific students and to abandon zero-tolerance policies that suspend or expel students, even on their first offense, in schools.

Encouraging districts to focus on prevention and supportive approaches to increase student engagement and, ultimately, keep students in the classroom, will lead to improved school climates and improve student learning outcomes. But not everyone seems to agree.

Opposition within the crab state

Maryland has consistently been at the front of the pack when it comes to education so it is not surprising to learn that the state was a leader in passing new regulations around student discipline. Though principals are still able to suspend students, they must also implement structured rehabilitation for students and a timeline for appealing disciplinary decisions. (Parents are now given 45 days, as opposed to 30, to file appeals and are allowed to request extensions.) Local school districts are given the autonomy to devise their own policies around discipline but must adhere to state-level monitoring.

Frederick County Delegate Kathy Afzali has spoken out against the new regulations, drafting two bills that would allow local officials, specifically those in her county, to ignore these state-mandated checks. She advocates for greater autonomy for teachers to handle behavioral problems in the classroom and argues that the discretion to make disciplinary decisions should not be stripped from principals and teachers. In the district-wide bill on school discipline regulations, she writes that the county board, “may disregard all or a portion of the guidelines established by the state board… if the county board determines that the guidelines are not appropriate for the schools under its jurisdiction.”

Delegate Kathy Afzali’s bill does not provide details regarding the protocol for identifying whether or not the state regulations are suitable for specific county schools.

We need students in class

In order to graduate more students, we need more students at their desks. According to the Open Society Institute, African Americans are suspended at higher rates in every county in Maryland. Looking specifically at Frederick County, about 11 percent of African American students were suspended or expelled in the 2013 school year, compared to just 3 percent of white students.

African American graduation rates in Frederick are relatively high in comparison to other counties, though these students have the lowest graduation rate within Frederick County: 81.95 percent of African Americans students graduated from high school in 2013 in comparison to more than 95 percent of Asian, Native American, and White students. In other counties, African American graduation rates are as low as 77.12 percent. These numbers alongside disproportionate disciplinary figures have been the reality for the county under the prior state and local discipline policies. Afzali’s bill seemingly seeks to continue those policies thus potentially perpetuating these inequalities for students of color.

The expressed intent of Maryland’s new discipline policies is only to provide guidance for school districts. These policies are just what we need in order to keep kids in class. Maryland is taking a giant leap towards improving school climate across the state that will contribute to improved academic outcomes for the state’s lowest performers. As we seek to increase graduation rates for all students and to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color, Maryland local districts should be held accountable to these new regulations.

Donique Reid is a policy and advocacy intern at the Alliance for Excellent Education.



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    Posted 7 years ago

    Good read. I’m interested to read specifics from the delegate.

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    Monica Almond
    Posted 7 years ago

    Teachers who are disciplined under collective bargaining agreements experience several months of stagnation as they attempt to finagle their way through an appeals process, the least that students and their families can get is 45 days. It is interesting how quickly we forget that education is about the students, not the teachers.

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    Fitzgerald Reid
    Posted 7 years ago

    I think it is a good thing that US Departments of Education and Justice issued this new federal guidance. For the reason that the school systems hold children at such a high standard now and with the way things were i can imagine it was extremely hard for underprivileged youths let alone African Americans to meet those standards and still graduate. Take for instance the No Child Left Behind Act, Which requires all public schools receiving federal funding to administer a state-wide standardized test annually to all students. well if every student has to take this test I am pretty sure it is still harder for the child who has been suspended more often, because of the fact that they miss so much school they don’t know or understand the material.

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    Posted 7 years ago

    “In order to graduate more students, we need more students at their desks.”

    In addition, I find it difficult to understand why Frederick County Delegate Kathy Afzali thinks that school discipline regulations can be disregarded. I agree with Ron, I”d like to know more specifics about her argument; her line of thinking does not seem to be in students’ best interests.

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    Posted 7 years ago

    This is interesting in the context of the districts vs charter debates, as district schools cannot expel students while charter schools can. I also wonder how increasing teacher autonomy in discipline would also go with the increasing emphasis on accountability and standards in education.

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    Jamaica Fine
    Posted 7 years ago

    Great post!! I think Restorative justice is definitely the way to go.

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    Bill McDonald
    Posted 7 years ago

    Differential rates of discipline for similar offenses is a serious problem in the system. It needs some kind of intervention — maybe an automatic review and response to all disciplines until the differential no longer exists.

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    Stephen Marositz
    Posted 7 years ago

    Interesting work! In terms of the ‘rehabilitation plans’ you speak of, I’m working how those are determined and who decides what the best course of action for the student. Are these at the sole discretion of the principal or a are they designed with a team of people similar to an IEP meeting. I’m curious to see what academic factors are built into the plan as the out of school time (regardless of how much) translates to missed academic instruction as you mention and would only exacerbate existing struggles with course material.

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