SNOW HILL — The removal of some “zero tolerance” discipline policies from schools statewide could become a reality by the end of the month, resulting in a mixed local reaction with the Worcester County Board of Education taking a generally positive view, while at least one County Commissioner has labeled the changes “scary”.
A new, statewide Student Code of Conduct has been under development by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) for more than two years. The public comment period for the draft ended last week. However, it seems to have flown under the radar locally and the announcement that the regulations could soon be adopted caused County Commissioner Virgil Shockley no small amount of alarm.
“You’ve got a situation where now you’re putting bus drivers, aides, teachers, principals really, really in danger,” said Shockley, a school bus contractor as well as a farmer.
The changes would be extensive and affect most disciplinary actions. In general, the new code would eliminate most zero tolerance policies for peer harassment, drug possession, classroom disruption and weapon violations. Instead of an automatic out-of-school suspension, penalties like a shorter in-school suspension, mentoring program, mediation or community service would become the norm.
Shockley, who has also been a school bus driver for the past 26 years, said that he was startled by the perceived replacement of current policies with what might amount to a slap on the wrist.
“My initial reaction to this was, we spent almost $750,000 last year for deputies trying to make our schools safe and you have the State of Maryland basically saying that we’re going to keep a bully in school no matter what he does,” he said. “We’re going to keep a kid who assaulted someone in school no matter what he does. We’re going to keep a kid that brought drugs to school, forget that. We’re going to keep a kid that brought a gun. You can’t kick them out and suspend them permanently, forget that. We’re going to keep them in school and we’re going to keep them in your school.”
It’s not quite that drastic, according to the Worcester County Board of Education.
“Changes to Maryland’s student discipline regulations will not affect the federal laws, which address firearm violations on school property,” said Superintendent Dr. Jerry Wilson. “Consequences for firearm violations will remain the same. In addition, it continues to be a crime in Maryland to threaten or intend to cause harm with a deadly weapon of any kind.”
But the new Student Code of Conduct would “relax zero tolerance policies” in many areas, added Wilson.
“This helps to ensure that a consequence reflects the specific infraction rather than a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.
Worcester already has a strong track record on safe and comfortable environments. In the most recent 2013 Parent Survey, 99 percent of participating parents gave “safe and orderly environments” a favorable rating, with 63-percent giving the category the top rating of “Excellent.”
“Although the proposed regulations will generate some changes around how we determine appropriate consequences, our safe and orderly learning environments will not change,” Wilson said. “We are committed to our schools and classrooms being safe learning environments.”
But if it isn’t broken, Shockley wondered why it needs to be fixed.
“It is very troubling to me to have a state intervene, especially with Worcester County being the top ranked school system in the state,” he said.
Shockley alluded to both Worcester’s high rate of spending per pupil and the county standardized test scores, both of which have consistently fallen amongst the top-rated in the state.
It isn’t just a local concern. Comments on the proposed changes have been filed from all over the state with opinions mixed. Comments posted to MSDE’s website are generally critical of the change with the consensus being that the state is neutering county schools’ autonomy and ability to regulate their own disciplinary practices.
“In the rush to make Maryland look good on paper so we can say our suspension and expulsion rates are improving, we have overlooked the safety of our students and staff,” wrote Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, in an undated letter to MSDE.
“In short, the Board of Education feels that the draft Student Code of Conduct and the proposed regulations would make our schools less safe and less orderly,” wrote the Carroll County Board of Education in a letter dated Oct. 22, 2013.
The criticism wasn’t unanimous, however, with some educators asking for amendments but still being supportive overall. The Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE) agreed that there are problems with current zero tolerance policies. Additionally, they want to see reform in areas like continued educational services to all suspended or expelled students as well as a reduction in the “disproportionate impacts of student discipline policies on minority students.” Both are major goals of the state overhaul of the Student Code of Conduct.
A letter dated Dec. 3, 2012 from the Montgomery Board of Education made a similar statement, endorsing the intent of the state initiative.
“We support the intent of these proposed changes,” wrote the board. “The seriousness of the infractions, the impact on students, and the effect on future conduct are important factors in applying a suspension, a discipline tool that is considered an excused absence.”
The state board will vote to pass the Student Code of Conduct on Jan. 28. If it passes, Wilson confirmed that the Worcester Board of Education will review the changes and amend the county rules to “reflect the intent of the regulations.”
Shockley, however, has already tentatively reached out to Worcester’s state representatives looking for support in opposing the new Student Code of Conduct.
“In my I email, I basically said that we may need legislative action on this to opt out,” he said.
More information and a list of all posted public comments can be found at www.marylandpublicschools.org/MSDE/stateboard under the “Student Discipline and Long Term Suspensions” tab.