School Discipline Changes Approved

SNOW HILL- The Maryland State Board of Education (MSDE) officially adopted some much discussed new student discipline regulations this week, although what exactly that will mean for Worcester County isn’t certain at the moment.

MSDE has been working on an update to the statewide Student Code of Conduct for years. They have been seeking a balance between keeping school environments safe without completely cutting troublemakers lose. This has manifested in a desire to reduce out-of-school suspension as much as possible.

“Safe schools grow out of a positive school climate,” said State Board President Charlene M. Dukes.  “Maryland is dedicated to maintaining safety while increasing student achievement. In order for students to achieve success, they must be in school.”

Even in extreme cases where students have to be removed from school, the new regulations would require school systems to provide educational materials and services so that the students don’t fall behind.  A number of other changes will come with the new regulations as well, all of which are aimed at finding alternative discipline methods besides out-of-school suspension. This could range from in-school-suspension to peer mediation to having the student make a formal apology.

“The State Board has been looking into updating student discipline regulations for more than three years.  Board members are interested in reducing the number of out-of-school suspension and expulsions for non-violent behaviors,” said MSDE media representative Bill Reinhard. “The data is overwhelming. When students miss a significant amount of school, they are far less likely to graduate.   Our goal in Maryland is to provide students with the educational services to which they are entitled and move them forward to graduation.”

This general reduction in penalties has made some in Worcester nervous. County Commissioner Virgil Shockley has been the most vocal about his concerns that the state might be taking the teeth out of county’s ability to discipline wayward students.

“There was talk of doing away with the zero tolerance policy except with the weapons,” Shockley said.

With the vote to adopt the regulations passing this week, Shockley expects the County Commission to work in cooperation with the local Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson on how the state mandate will alter local policies.

“Out of this, once they’ve voted today, will come a new code of conduct which means that what you now have in place at the school level will have to be re-done,” said Shockley Wednesday. “Part of it, not all of it, but part of it, once we see what they’re actually going to change, what is going to be the focus of the whole why they did this, we’ll sit down with the school board and sit down with Dr. Wilson and go from there.”

The state changes will certainly have some impact on local regulations.

“The regulations require local school systems to adopt policies that reduce long-term out-of-school suspensions and expulsions,” read a release from MSDE, “and use such actions only when a student poses an imminent threat of serious harm to other students or staff, or when a student is engaged in chronic or extreme disruptive behavior.”

Worcester’s school board will be required to update their student code of conduct to fall in line with state regulations by next year. Besides reducing time spent out of school for all students, MSDE hopes to reduce or eliminate “the disproportionate impact of school discipline on students of color and students with disabilities.” The agency is in the process of creating a way to measure local discipline data to gauge exactly what that impact is on disabled and minority students.

As the county determines how much current policies will need to change to fall in step with the state, Shockley promised that if the result leaves Worcester unable to offer a significant deterrent to extreme misbehavior, the county would pushback.

“If they have gone to the extent of trying to take away our rights at the local level and the state is trying to take away our rights as far as discipline in our schools,” he said, “and safety in our schools then there’s going to be one hell of a fight.”

The most important step right now while the school board considers the state changes, Shockley continued, is a public awareness campaign for parents. Even though MSDE has been working on an updated code of conduct for more than three years, general knowledge on the regulations is low. Very few parents with children in Worcester schools seem to understand or even have heard of the overhaul to discipline that was approved by the state this week, by Shockley’s estimation.

“Someone, and this is the responsibility of the Board of Education I guess, needs to tell the parents,” he said.

While President of the County Commission Bud Church could not be reached for comment, Shockley, at least, said that he’s willing to call on state representatives to intercede if the county feels they should be exempted from discipline changes.