SNOW HILL — As required by recent changes to state law, Worcester County Public Schools (WCPS) have adopted a new student discipline plan that aims to find ways to reduce suspensions and expulsions while still keeping schools safe and productive. There was some pushback against the new standards from local government earlier this year, but the Board of Education does not share the concern and believes the standards will have a positive impact on schools.
“This policy came about from the new state regulations that were approved earlier this year. Basically, this policy was established to maintain a safe and supportive environment,” Dr. Aaron Dale, director of Student Services, told the school board last Tuesday.
The new policy, which the Board of Education adopted unanimously, is part of a Maryland initiative to find alternatives to treating behavioral problems. In the past, the concern was that schools were taking troubled students outside of the learning environment for too long. For a lot of students, the suspensions lacked the indented gravity. Students also had trouble catching up on their studies if removed from the school for long stretches of time.
Under the new policy, suspensions and expulsions will really be only for the worst cases, with mediation and in-school punishments given a greater emphasis. And in the cases where a suspension or expulsion is justified, students are to be kept up to date with daily educational materials.
“One of the major shifts or changes with this discipline policy is having more of a teaching approach when it comes to discipline,” Dale explained. “Even though the consequence element is still a part of it, the other approach now is more teaching.”
For example, according to a draft of the new discipline policy, “All students receiving an out-of-school suspension or is expelled shall receive daily classwork and assignments from each teacher, which shall be reviewed and corrected by teachers on a weekly basis and returned to the student.”
The criteria for leveling a suspension have also risen.
“Suspensions may be used 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,” read the policy draft.
The policy is broad and touches on other areas like the destruction of property and consideration of behavioral issues for students who have learning disabilities.
There was some stir in Worcester when the requirements were first adopted by the state earlier this fall. Leading the charge was County Commissioner Virgil Shockley, who is also a bus contractor with the schools. His concern was that the new discipline policy lacked consequences and took away a necessary tool for controlling misbehavior. Shockley went on the record saying he’d like to examine the possibility of seeking a waiver for Worcester to avoid the new state policy mandate.
However, while the County Commission is responsible for providing most of the funding for the school system, adopting and enforcing school policies falls entirely under the purview of the school board. Dale and his team spent several months studying the proposed standards and he indicated he feels the policy he was presenting worked for Worcester. The board’s unanimous adoption of the policy confirms that belief. In fact, Board of Education Chair Bob Rothermel said he agrees with the idea of reducing suspensions as it can become habit for some students who then slip through the cracks.
“Research is showing that by suspending kids too often you’re actually encouraging that behavior,” he said. “They’re the ones that drop out of school, they’re the ones that start getting into crime, they’re the ones who end up costing society even more money.”