School Discipline

An emerging policy and budget worries leave school officials struggling to find solutions

By Christina L. Lyons | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 03.26.15 – Feature

Well into the 2013-14 school year, administrators at Gov. Thomas Johnson Middle School in Frederick remained baffled about how to encourage a sixthgrade girl to attend school and end the repeated absences that already reached 40 days that year. Under school guidelines, they could opt to expel her. But it wasn’t the route they preferred.

“The student was extremely smart, very talented,” says guidance counselor Reginald Gunter. “But we weren’t making progress here.” So Gunter reached out to leaders of the nonprofit Project Alive that offers support for educational mentoring, family support and liaison services at the student’s neighborhood of Lucas Village, a low-income community in the city.

With the nonprofit’s help, Gunter learned  about issues the student was facing at home and found ways to communicate. “I began to make inroads,” he says. Gunter was able to coax the student back into regular school attendance, but when her family moved out of Lucas Village and she changed schools, the problems began again.

So Gunter worked successfully to bring her back to Thomas Johnson and get her back on track.“This is a student who would have just fallen through the cracks,” Gunter says. The volunteer-based Project Alive offers an alternative to the long-term suspensions and expulsions that federal, state and now county guidelines encourage administrators and teachers to avoid.

But it’s a solution school support personnel find difficult to emulate inhouse across the school system—particularly as they brace for the state’s impending budget cuts—in order to comply with a new discipline policy that calls for keeping misbehaving students in school and learning.

“If there is a process [for implementing the discipline policy], we haven’t seen something,” says Guy Djoken, president of the Frederick County NAACP, who has long advocated such a
policy to reduce a reported achievement gap between minority and white students. “It comes down to money, and it’s very unfortunate … because we are talking about the future of the county.”

Kathleen Hartsock, director of student services for Frederick County Public Schools, concedes funding remains a problem, as do increasing problems that children face: family issues at home, sometimes exacerbated by economic challenges, combined with complications arising from social media use, for example, and providing the support to help teachers address discipline problems while managing a large class remains an issue.

“Our schools are huge and being a teacher is a challenge,” says Denise Flora, principal of Heather Ridge School, an alternative temporary placement for middle and high school students presenting long-term behavioral problems.

“Our goal is always to educate our kids and keep them in school,” says Frederick County Board of Education President Brad Young. “On the other hand, keeping them in school requires additional resources. … We requested $20 million in the (fiscal 2016) budget and we know we have no chance of getting it.”

More Tolerance

Two decades after schools nationwide adopted zero-tolerance policies with hopes of curbing a growth in violence and drug use, policymakers reconsidered the approach as statistics showed increasing levels of suspensions and expulsions along with dropping high school graduation rates and rising complaints about harsh penalties for minor infractions.

Many questioned whether the policies were working, or even whether they were necessary in light of the presence of safety personnel on nearly all middle and high school campuses. Further, statistics showed a disproportionately higher rate of suspensions and expulsions among minority and disabled students, with African Americans suspended or expelled at three time the rate of whites—a gap that has widened since the 1970s with the expanding use of the zero-tolerance policies, according to federal reports.

In Frederick County, whites account for 65 percent of the student population, Hispanics 13 percent and African Americans 11 percent, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education. Overall suspensions of whites during the 2013-2014 school year surpassed those of African Americans, but not in balance with their population percentages: 1,712 of whites out of a total 3,430 suspensions (or 50 percent) compared to 1,032 (30 percent) for blacks and 389 Hispanics (11 percent).

The top reason for the suspensions, as it was across the state: disrespect, insubordination or disruption (1,514 suspensions), followed by attacks, threats or fighting (1,501 suspensions). Statistics vary by school, with the highest rates of suspensions and gaps between minorities and whites occurring at schools like Frederick High School, which has about 1,326 students this year, with whites accounting for 36 percent of the student population, African Americans, 26 percent and Hispanics, 23 percent.

The school reported 148 suspensions last school year, including 18 for white students, 63 for African American students and 43 for Hispanics. At Gov. Thomas Johnson High School, which had 1,524 students enrolled during the last school year, African Americans accounted for 23 percent of the population, Hispanics 27 percent and whites 48 percent; the school reported 244 suspensions, of which 130 were for African Americans, followed by 52 for whites and 27 for Hispanics.

Several middle schools also reported high level of suspensions and expulsions, led by West Frederick Middle School with 326 suspensions, of which 178 were for African American students, 70 Hispanic and 40 white. Djoken said of the suspension and expulsion process: “We are shooting ourselves in the foot. Yes, if you wait to give opportunity to young people and educate them and give second chances … you don’t need to jail them.”

In January 2013, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder released guidelines for school discipline under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and followed up a year later with a more comprehensive guide for states. The Maryland Department of Education responded with its new guidance for student discipline that said principals must establish a program for rehabilitation and use suspensions or expulsions only for the most severe offenses.

In Frederick County, education policymakers and administrators moved quickly to draft new guidelines to comply with the state regulation, releasing rules just in time for the start of the 2014-2015 school year. The county policy advises that before a long-term suspension or expulsion can be considered, “positive behavioral interventions and supports should be considered as practicable.”

The discipline code lists three levels of intervention responses, with the first response being classroom and administrative support. By the time a student reaches the third level, he or she can face suspensions or expulsions, with approval of principal. But in all cases, staff must provide classwork to the student and maintain contact.

Besides seeking to reduce the achievement gap reported among minorities compared to whites, the new guidelines also mean zero-tolerance policies for minor infractions—such as for carrying Advil—can be replaced with a more deliberative, rational approach, says Flora.

However, school safety also will be taken highly into consideration, Hartsock says. “When looking at a request for suspension or expulsion, it has to rise to some threshold; that their return to school would pose an imminent threat or serious harm to students or staff,” she says. “We also have to limit the duration of that exclusion to the shortest extent possible.”But halfway through the school year, it remains unclear exactly how the policy guidelines will be fully implemented. There is “dysfunction,” Djoken says.

Keeping it in school

Flora said the change in recent years toward focusing on rewarding more positive behavior and intervening with kids at their home school has slightly reduced the influx into the Heather Ridge middle school and high school programs, “although it still leaves those kids entrenched in their behavior” who eventually do need to attend her school.

Adam Umak, a seventh and eighth grade English teacher at Thurmont Middle School agrees the positive approach is working better. “Our guidance counselors do a fantastic job of heading off potential problems with kids among other kids—they are simultaneously student advocates and school advocates.

They are more than happy to speak up and help direct the kids, and minister to what the student’s emotional or social needs might be,” he says. But several teachers and administrators at Frederick High School and Governor Thomas Johnson High School declined to be interviewed or did not respond to interview requests.

The Frederick County PTA also declined to discuss the issue, although the Maryland PTA did voice opposition with the state policy, raising concerns about staff support and class disruptions. Hartsock promotes the success of the county model, but conceded that expanding training opportunities for classroom teachers and staff support charged with addressing discipline problems is an ongoing need and challenge.

Further, more staff always is needed. Of the 5,650 FCPS employees, about 3,000 are teachers and 120 are counselors or psychologists. “I’m always trying to rally for more school workers, social workers, pupil personnel workers,” Hartsock says. “But our resources have been very strained.”

“When you find a child has a problem, there’s always money to punish them and to put them in jail,” Djoken says. “If you were to just put a small portion of that money” into education and resources, “we would be better off.” Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who took office in January, faces a $750 million state budget shortfall and has promised cuts will be forthcoming.

Former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley had made record increases in education spending, which Hogan pledges to reduce. Brad Young agrees with the concern about the lack of money, but the school board is taking a different approach—urging the local delegation to the Maryland General Assembly to advocate for legislation that would permit the county to seek its own guidelines and not have to follow with state policy.

While he agrees that higher rates of suspensions for minorities are reported at schools like Thomas Johnson and Frederick high school, he says, “In proportion to other counties, we don’t have as high a number.”

“As usual, the guidelines came from issues in other counties,” he says. “It requires additional resources and there is none. For example, if kids stay in school, we have to separate them and provide specifically for them.”

In the meantime, Flora hopes to devise a way to offer middle and high schools the services of Heather Ridge—where staff is trained on dealing one-on-one with students and helping them transition back to a regular classroom. “The effort to suspend had met with some success, but we have had some success here, too.”

“We need to figure out how to do more” to help students remain in their home school, Flora continues. “I would like to help my colleagues.” Djoken says of expanding and utilizing the services at Heather Ridge: “I would say it’s a good way to start.” He adds, “But like anything else, we need the community to buy in … That’s something that is still a work in progress.”

A challenging part of working with students with chronic discipline problems is making connections with the students as well as the parents, and encouraging parents or other family members to help in the process. “Because of the challenges parents sometime face, it becomes more difficult to engage them,” Hartsock says.

She notes the value of programs like those offered by the Eliminating the Achievement Gap Inc., a group of citizens, educators and community leaders which meets around the city to discuss ways to help at-risk students in school. It also offers school personnel a way to make connections with the African American community.

And Hartsock commends Gunter’s efforts with the Project Alive group. But without such volunteer initiatives, financial help is imperative to emulate such programs. Djoken agrees. “You don’t have to be Einstein to realize that investing in children rather than penalizing them is a better way,” he says. “We need to be smarter about the way we spend our money.”

Touring Heather Ridge

Six high school students sit at their school desks, faced forward, as the teacher, Vanessa Nierwienski, leads a discussion about Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart. She asks the students how they would react if they were the old man in the story who is the target of the narrator.

“I would get up swinging. I’ve done that before,” calls out a boy hidden from the class in an alcove near the front of the room—still in sight of the teacher but far from the other students. Heather Ridge School Principal Denise Flora explains to a visitor, “That’s because any time he is in arm’s distance of the others, he can’t keep control.”

The teacher continues, “How’s the narrator feeling?” A boy in the school uniform of tan pants and blue polo shirt answers. “I think he’s scared. Nervous.” The boy continues to answer each question, while the boy behind the wall occasionally yells out his own answers as the other students sit quietly.

Flora quietly leads the way out the door and down a brightly lit hallway. Behind another locked door, a few middle school students sit in Emily Sherman’s Language Arts class. A girl sits in back holding an ice pack on top of her hand. Flora asks, “What happened to your hand?” The girl responds, “I broke it punching Wallace.” The principal reacts only with a slight nod and the teacher continues the class.

Flora, a petite woman dressed in a dark grey pant suit, appears at first the no-nonsense administrator straight out of Central Casting. But Flora’s sense of humor and patience reveal a softer touch necessary for a school targeted for children with long-term behavioral issues who need individualized attention. “These are students for whom there’s no solution at their home school,” Flora says. “These students have not responded to anything else.”

The school offers three programs: middle school; daytime high school targeted for students up to age 16; and an evening program for older students who are encouraged to work during the day. During the recent fall semester, the school had 24 middle school students, 22 high school students and 17 evening students.

At Heather Ridge, the students face a tightly monitored structure, beginning with the mandatory uniform. Street clothes are permitted only when they have proven they are near ready to return to their home school. Students with drug and alcohol problems must empty their pockets each morning and attend health department classes.

All students’ cell phones are held by staff during the day, and middle school students are walked to their homeroom. Students are evaluated on such goals as getting to class on time, keeping their hands and feet to themselves, and doing their classwork. “Usually one thing got them here … they have an individual behavior goal and they are monitored daily on their progress,” earning points and moving up through the system, Flora explains.

“The rules lessen and expectations grow as kids move through the levels.” Heather Ridge offers an advantage that is difficult to emulate at the home schools: small class sizes, where students can get more individualized attention. “It’s easier with a small class … these kids are not motivated learners,” Flora says.

Nevertheless, “while eight [students] seems like nothing, it can be a challenge if they don’t respond.” The goal of the staff, which includes trained therapists, is to form relationships with the kids and achieve mutual respect among them. “We know when they go back to their home school they won’t have therapists on staff,” she says.

So the transition is gradual, typically allowing students to take one or two classes first at their home school if it is close by. Parental involvement is key, but often difficult, Flora says. “We encourage parents to come to the [initial] intake meeting, and meet with the child’s social worker,” she says. “Sometimes we never see them again.”

Some students remain a semester, some for up to two years. Some are not successful when they return to their home school and might come back again. Most require some help from teachers and counselors at the home school who are advised on the transition by staff at Heather Ridge. “We mainstream a lot of students out of the program; 70 percent either don’t return or don’t drop out.”

Traveling down more hallways, Flora opens doors to other classrooms: a robotics class where students build drag racing cars; a tech-ed class where two students individually play a computer game that leads them through the maze of a house to identify “simple machines”; and a reading-intervention class where three students quietly complete an adaptive testing program on computers.

Stopping by the cafeteria, volunteer Kelly Argenta steps out to greet the students who now rush in for lunch. “I’m mad at you,” says one young boy with a half smile before dashing through the door. Argenta laughs. “They are always mad when I don’t bring my snake,” she says, referring to Keeter, a python she often brings into classes. “These kids are great,” Argenta says. “I feel it’s important to come here.”