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A Breakthrough in Discipline Reform for Early Learners

Zafar Shah remembers being called to his son Zakir’s school. As a new parent to the school system, he was embarrassed and apologetic, but did not know much about disciplinary procedures. He arrived and was told that his son had assaulted a teacher by throwing a chair. Alarmed, he asked for the details of the situation. After all, his son needed assistance carrying his backpack to school, so he wondered how he’d thrown a chair. Staff admitted that he had pushed the chair over and that it almost hit a teacher. Still, Zakir was suspended. Was suspension a necessary response to this behavior? Mr. Shah certainly didn’t think so. Today, we can say that Maryland lawmakers would agree.

On July 1, 2017, an important new Maryland law took effect, the Public Schools – Suspensions and Expulsions Act, which prohibits the out-of-school suspension and expulsion of children in grades pre-K through second, except in very narrow circumstances. The bill instead requires the use of positive behavior supports and other evidenced-based interventions. In Maryland, school personnel are granted wide deference on removal of students from the classroom, which often results in multiple responses to the same or similar incidents that vary significantly depending on the jurisdiction, school or classroom.

Ripe for Reform

Discipline disparities have long been a concern in Maryland. In 2007, a report by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) Task Force on the Education of Maryland’s African-American Males revealed that black, male students were disciplined more often, and more harshly, with no evidence of more serious misbehavior or higher rates of misbehavior.

In 2009, Atanya v. Dorchester County called into question the year-long removal of a student from school for fighting while providing no at-home educational services beyond homework assignments. While the Maryland State Board of Education ruled that the suspension was within the school’s power, it questioned whether long-term suspensions without educational services were overly harsh. The ACLU of Maryland urged a review of both the educational services provided during removal and the widespread use of suspensions.

In July of 2014, the Maryland Board of Education adopted a set of policies known as the Maryland Guidelines for a State Code of Discipline. This action came on the heels of several years of research into the inconsistent practices and long-lasting negative effects of out-of-school removals, working groups, and extensive public comments and revisions. The new guidance encouraged local school systems to adopt policies that set clear behavioral expectations for the entire school community, with a focus on healthy learning environments, and featured graduated responses in the hopes of reducing the use of harsh out-of-school suspensions for non-violent offenses.

The board’s review process also resulted in the adoption of a new regulation requiring school systems to identify, reduce, and ultimately eliminate disproportionality in discipline. We were encouraged by both milestones, however, to date, disproportionality has grown and action to update policies at the district level has lagged. At the end of 2016, only four of the 24 school districts in the state had adjusted their local policies.

Today, while Maryland has touted declining suspension and expulsion rates overall, during the 2015-2016 school year, 2,363 pre-K through second grade students were suspended out-of-school or expelled – an 18 percent increase over the prior year.

Strong Coordination Brings Change

Working closely with our partners in the Maryland Coalition to Reform School Discipline (CRSD), the ACLU of Maryland secured legislative champions. We highlighted the need for reform by preparing students, families and school-level staff to educate lawmakers about the facts. Bill sponsors Senator Will Smith and Delegate Brooke Lierman were deeply committed at every stage, and they moved early to gain support of influential committees including the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus and the Maryland Legislative Agenda for Women.

We presented the data and identified a practical message – research shows suspensions do not work; let’s focus on effective alternatives. Coalition partners attended meetings with legislators and lined up hearing witnesses, which included school staff, a principal, researchers, and several community and school-level service organizations including the Greater Baltimore Urban League, Youth Court advocates, Advocates for Children and Youth, and Disability Rights Maryland.

A Monumental Step and a Long Road Ahead

We celebrate this new law that will change the trajectory of thousands of early learners across the state. Our next steps include advocating for trainings, additional staff, and the expansion of evidence-based models to support teachers. In addition, the push for bold reform in higher grades will continue. As part of that effort, the ACLU will serve on the newly formed Commission on the School-to-Prison Pipeline and Restorative Practices, established by a bill sponsored by Delegate Alonzo Washington.

Maryland has joined a small but growing contingent of recent states taking steps to transform counterproductive discipline practices.

In June, legislators in Texas passed a bill limiting out-of-school suspensions for students from kindergarten to grade 2. Michigan has also passed a series of state-wide measures which require schools to consider students factors like age and discipline history before pursuing exclusionary discipline. The bills also require districts to consider using alternatives to suspensions like peer mediation and limits the kinds of violations early learners can be suspended for. California, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Oregon all have similar suspension bans for their young public-school students. Maryland is the latest state in a list of many, and we hope more states will follow suit.

Kimberly Humphrey is the Education and Legislative Advocate at the ACLU of Maryland. She advocates for fair funding for all students in Maryland, working with state and city officials, parents, school administrators and other local leaders. She also fights to reform school discipline policies and practices that often disproportionately impact students of color.


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