Q&A: Maryland Abandons Zero Tolerance Approach to School Discipline

Khalil Abdullah, New America Media | 2/5/2014, 9:30 p.m.
Courtesy of New America Media

Last week, the Maryland State Board of Education approved a set of regulations aimed at reducing school suspension and expulsion rates. The move, say supporters, should help curtail school discipline practices that end up funneling large numbers of African-American youth into the school-to-prison pipeline. Advocates for Children and Youth's Education Policy Director David Beard explains some of the data behind the move, as well as the board's decision, and what the new guidelines could mean in practical terms for parents, teachers, and, students. He spoke with NAM editor Khalil Abdullah.

Can you give us some sense of the scope of suspensions and expulsions in Maryland and how they affect different segments of the student population?

In the 2011-12 school year, Maryland suspended or expelled 50,000 students across the state. The numbers came down to 42,000 during 2012-13. We attribute that decline to the hard work of the state board and a number of organizations, including the NAACP of Maryland, the Maryland Disability Law Center, ACLU, and the Advancement Project, among others. These regulations are a great first step in creating effective disciplinary practices.

Still, 42,000 students is too high a number and too many of these students are African-Americans, or disabled. So while the overall numbers have fallen, the "who" in the data still show that 8.7 percent of suspensions and expulsions are African-American children compared to 3 percent for white students. Yes, the overall numbers have come down, but the gap between African-American students and white students has increased rather than declined.

In some Maryland counties, the rate of suspensions and expulsions is over 10 percent for African-American students, particularly in some of the rural counties. In Wicomico County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, the rate was at 19 percent; one in five African-American students were being suspended or expelled. That's the extreme, but, let's be clear; the disproportionate suspension rate is a problem in every county in Maryland.

Do Latino students have similar rates of suspensions and expulsions as African-Americans?

No, they do not. The rate of Latino students being suspended is around 3 percent, about the same as white students. Our advocates were talking about this and we noted that, of the data subgroups, there is a slightly higher rate for biracial or multiracial students, than for whites, but only slightly. There is a higher rate for disabled students, who are suspended or expelled at twice the rate of white students.

What options do advocates recommend instead of suspensions and expulsions?

The guidelines do not eliminate suspensions and expulsions. Unfortunately, there will still be a need to use those tools, particularly where public safety is involved. Further, we agree that when kids misbehave, they need to be held accountable for their actions, but we think other tools are available that will not only hold them accountable, but also keep them in school. Is suspension the right course of action in most of these cases? We think not. For elementary school students, a loss of privileges may be sufficient, like missing recess, or having to eat lunch with the teacher or principal.