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Maryland Adopts New Discipline Rule to Address Racial Disparities, Suspensions

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The Maryland State Board of Education adopted new student discipline regulations Tuesday following years of discussion about how the state can best reduce rates of suspensions and expulsions and address disproportionate rates of discipline for students from certain racial groups.

Under the new regulations, districts in the state must adopt new policies by the 2014-15 school year that:

"(1) reflect a discipline philosophy based on the goals of fostering, teaching, and acknowledging positive behavior; (2) [Are] designed to keep students connected to school so that they may graduate college and career ready; (3) describe the conduct that may lead to in-school and out-of-school suspension or expulsion; (4) allow for discretion in imposing discipline; (5) address the ways the educational and counseling needs of suspended students will be met; and (6) explain why and how long-term suspensions or expulsions are last-resort options."

Following a national push for changes in broad "zero tolerance" policies that critics say contribute to unnecessarily harsh punishment for nonviolent offenses, states around the country have launched discussions similar to Maryland's. And the feds recently weighed in when leaders of the U.S. departments of Education and Justice issued new guidance on how schools can avoid violating civil rights laws by properly drafting and applying discipline policies.

States will be a big part of changing the situation because they played a big role in creating it, critics of "zero tolerance" policies have said. Such policies were part of the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1995, which required states that receive federal funding  to enact policies that mandated expulsion of students found to be possessing a weapon on campus. But in practice, the law's reach extended beyond its original intentions as districts expanded the definition of "weapons" beyond firearms and removed students from the classroom for more minor, discretionary offenses, such as school uniform violations and talking back to adults, critics have said. Education Week took a broader look at the shifting national discussion on student discipline in this January 2013 report.

I'm eager to see if the new federal guidance will just fuel existing efforts to change discipline policies or if it will motivate additional states and districts to consider such changes. There's a chance policymakers and educators will have to see  the consequences of federal enforcement of the new guidelines before they decide to act on their own. (The Department of Justice may have a chance to demonstrate that enforcement if it finds validity in a complaint filed recently by several civil rights groups regarding discipline in Wake County, N.C., schools.)

Maryland had been on the path toward change long before the federal agencies released the new guidance.

Under the state's new rule, schools can only suspend students for longer than 10 days if they determine their behavior "would pose an imminent threat of serious harm to other students and staff" or if "the student has engaged in chronic and extreme disruption of the educational process that has created a substantial barrier to learning for other students across the school day."

School leaders must also exhaust other interventions before they consider suspensions or expulsions, must limit classroom removal to "the shortest period practicable," and must provide suspended/expelled students with "comparable educational services" while they are out of the classroom, the regulations say.

Schools will also be required to monitor and report disciplinary data under the new regulation. Schools with disciplinary procedures that the state department of education finds have a "disproportionate impact on minority students or a discrepant impact on special education students" will be required to create a plan "to reduce the impact within one year and eliminate it within three years."

Though it was applauded by civil rights and student groups, Maryland's process of revising its disciplinary procedures wasn't without critics, a Washington Post article said:

"But the state's largest teachers' union says the new approach doesn't address the root causes of misbehavior or provide funding for professional training, student programs or other supports. They also said the regulations could lead to an increase in disruptive students in class.

"We would like students to be in school, but at the same time, if you have a student who is disrupting other students, you have to do something about it," said Betty Weller, the president of the Maryland State Education Association.

As the board heard testimony during the past several years, thousands of public comments poured in, including many that were critical of the guidelines. One educator wrote in 2012: "You propose these ridiculous regulations without having any idea how they would work in, say, a challenging middle school population. You just leave all the fallout to the teachers."

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