Teachers, tell us what's on your minds
I was truly gratified to read the post from the city teacher-blogger known as Epiphany in Baltimore encouraging his colleagues to read our site. I was less gratified to read another teacher's comment to that post, saying he/she would respect me more if "she/the Sun actually chose issues that were meaningful" and that many of the issues I do report on are "red herrings."
One of the topics the teacher suggested that we write about: behavioral incidents being underreported because schools are afraid of being labeled persistently dangerous. That is actually something we've covered before, both on this blog and in the paper. (Click to read more at the end of this post for a great story that my predecessor on the city schools beat, Laura Loh, wrote in 2004.) Could we have written more, and more recently? Of course. But we can't write a story, for the newspaper at least, when teachers won't let us quote them by name. It's a problem I've run into over and over in my nearly eight years covering education.
On this blog, however, it's a different game. While I encourage everyone to take responsibility for their comments, the blog is meant to be a forum where teachers and parents can speak candidly. If something is important to you, post a comment on this site. We're here to generate discussions about the issues that are meaningful to you.
THE BALTIMORE SUN
Suspensions discouraged, educators say
Unions say officials fear `dangerous' designation
Aspect of No Child Left Behind
City schools head insists no such directive exists
Date: Sunday, October 24, 2004
Source: SUN STAFF
Byline: Laura Loh
Baltimore school officials are suspending fewer disruptive students to keep schools from being labeled "persistently dangerous" under the federal No Child Left Behind law, some city teachers and principals charge.
"They don't want to suspend people," said Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. "But they have that backward. The children need to be disciplined. That's what makes the school safe."
With 15 city schools placed on probation this summer and told they're one year away from the "dangerous" label - which would give parents at those schools the right to transfer their children to other schools - some principals and teachers say they're being pressured to avoid removing disruptive youngsters from school. They contend that might be one reason for the spate of violence and fires in schools this year.
Under the federal law, schools are classified as persistently dangerous based not on how many assaults or fires occur within their walls, but on the number of students suspended for such violent acts.
City and state school officials insist that they are not encouraging principals to bend their suspension policies to satisfy the federal law.
But officials with the labor unions that represent teachers and principals said Maryland's interpretation of No Child Left Behind has created an environment in city schools in which students know they can get away with offenses because administrators are under pressure to keep discipline numbers low.
The pressure on administrators may be higher in Baltimore than elsewhere in Maryland because the city has the only schools in the state that have been deemed to have an unacceptable level of violent offenses. By contrast, elsewhere in the country, some urban districts far larger than Baltimore do not have as many schools bearing the "dangerous" label because their states use more rigid criteria.
At least two of the 15 city schools on the state's watch list have been disrupted by student-set fires this school year, and one was the site of a large brawl last week that police broke up using pepper spray.
About a dozen schools not on the list also have been disrupted by minor fires, and serious incidents occurred recently at two of those schools. Two teenagers were wounded in a shooting outside Thurgood Marshall High on Thursday, and a gun was fired near students as they stood outside Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy during a fire evacuation last month.
Some administrators contend that the pressure not to remove disruptive students is coming from the school system's leadership.
"My principals have been told in a roundabout way that if a large number of suspensions come out of their schools, there's a possibility they could be rated `unsatisfactory,' or receive some type of letter of reprimand," said Jimmy Gittings, president of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association.
But city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland denied that her administration has issued such a directive.
"Just the opposite," she said. "I had this very conversation with a number of staff members yesterday that, regardless of [the persistently dangerous label], we need to have consequences for the young people who are starting these fires or disrupting the school day.
"If that means [using] suspensions or expulsions, absolutely we want to extend those consequences."
Copeland said some school leaders may have gotten a wrong impression from their supervisors. School officials have said that some principals might have unknowingly inflated their numbers by overzealously reporting fights or other physical contact as violent assaults.
Copeland said she will make sure principals understand that they should always suspend or expel students for violent offenses.
To comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, the Maryland State Department of Education collects data on long-term suspensions and expulsions that stem from nine types of offense - including arson, assault and bringing a weapon to school.
Under Maryland's interpretation of the law, schools are classified as persistently dangerous based not on the number of assaults or arson fires, but on the number of students suspended for such acts.
The law gives parents the option of transferring their children out of schools deemed unsafe. In Maryland, such a school is defined as one that reports, for three years in a row, a combined suspension-and-expulsion rate of 2.5 percent or higher of its enrollment. After two years of poor records, schools are placed on probation.
Sixteen city schools were put on probation in August. One school, Lakeland Elementary/Middle, was removed from the list recently after the state examined revised data.
State education officials said the law was not intended to scare principals into not suspending or expelling students.
"The message should not be that you shouldn't be looking at suspensions and expulsions for fear of being designated," said JoAnne L. Carter, assistant state superintendent for student and school services.
The point of the law, Carter said, is to require schools with persistent problems to examine why students are misbehaving and adopt preventative strategies. Long-term suspensions and expulsions, she said, are reactions that do not get at the root of the problem.
But Lily Loring, a teacher at Highlandtown Middle School - one of the schools on probation - said she and her colleagues have not been trained or given resources to deal with disruptive pupils in alternative ways.
"The principal was told, `Your suspension numbers need to come down, and you need to seek other methods,'" she said. "Taking away our only tool [suspensions] is like sabotaging us."
The school's principal could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
The issue of removing students from schools is a controversial one.
Some educators believe that offending students should be swiftly disciplined to send a message of zero-tolerance.
Others, such as Lakeland's principal, Jacqueline Ferris, said she thinks suspensions and expulsions are "an awful solution for kids."
"You try everything before a suspension," said Ferris. "They're children. Children make mistakes. If you don't do everything you can, and you just put them out, what do they learn?"
But she said she draws the line when someone gets injured. "If you hurt somebody else's child, then you have a problem, or if you bring things to school that you shouldn't bring," Ferris said.
Many teachers and administrators, however, say that removing students from a school is sometimes necessary.
A disruptive student "needs to know he's going to be removed and not brought back until there's been a satisfactory conference with the parent," said English.
Tierra Redd, a senior at Walbrook, said her school has been strict about suspending students who fight.
But Bryant Williams, a seventh-grader at Highlandtown, said pupils at his school don't fear repercussions because they don't think they will be caught or receive long suspensions.
"I think they should be expelled from Baltimore City public schools," he said.
Sun staff writers Liz Bowie, Scott Calvert, Matt Dolan, Stephanie Hanes and Jill Rosen contributed to this article.
All content herein is © 2007 The Baltimore Sun and may not be republished without permission.