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 Article of Interest - Discipline

Student Suspensions Leap in State
by Anand Vaishnav, Boston Globe, 3/12/2003
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With educators pressured to take a harder line with unruly students, the number of young people kicked out of Massachusetts public schools for disciplinary problems has soared to its highest point in six years, preliminary state figures show.

In 2000-01, schools recorded 1,621 "student exclusions," or removals of misbehaving students for more than 10 consecutive days. That's an almost 15 percent jump from the previous year, according to preliminary figures that the state Department of Education is finalizing for a forthcoming report.

The department annually publishes the student exclusion study, but the numbers gain newfound importance this year: For the first time, the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states to identify "persistently dangerous" schools and to draft guidelines that use student exclusions in deciding which schools to label as unsafe.

State education officials declined yesterday to comment on the numbers, which appear in school district profiles on the department's website. Officials said they will discuss the data when they release a full report in the coming weeks, with student removals by race, gender, and school system. Previous reports have shown that black and Latino students are kicked out of schools at greater rates than whites and Asians, and boys more than girls.

Massachusetts schools also enrolled more students in recent years. But that does not completely explain the uptick in students removed from school.

Under the most recent figures, the rate of student removals has risen slightly to 1.6 students suspended or expelled per 1,000 children. The year before, it was 1.5 students. Still, that small an increase in the rate of suspension for the almost 980,000 students in schools across the state translates into the double-digit jump in percentage of suspensions.

Educators and psychologists yesterday said the increase in disruptive students being removed reflects several factors, ranging from schools not meeting students' needs to a breakdown in classroom respect, to lingering effects from the fatal Columbine High School shootings.

The 1,621 exclusions include students who have been removed from school several times in the same year. Not all of them served their suspensions by staying at home. Many students went to alternative schools or in-school suspension programs where students work in separate classrooms under teachers' strict supervision.

Still, the sharp rise sparked discussions among education specialists about whether the numbers signaled that schools were getting tougher on discipline -- or whether students were acting out more frequently.

"It is a little alarming to hear that it has gotten to be quite high," said Shirley Malone-Fenner, a professor of psychology and human development at Wheelock College. "There's probably a variety of reasons. The perception, I think, that some students have is that schools don't care about them as much, whether that is real or not. I think another reason is because many of our schools do not have an organized crisis-management team that is able to deal with different types of student behavior."

Susan Cole, director of the Children's Law Support Project at the Boston-based Massachusetts Advocates for Children, said kicking students out of school is a temporary -- and unwise -- solution. Many students act out because they witness domestic violence in their own lives, she suggested. Schools face the burden of trying to keep them focused while at school -- a task made harder after budget-related layoffs of social workers and counselors, she said.

"The move today is toward surface punishments that don't address underlying needs," said Cole, a former teacher. "Students most in need of help don't get it."

But unions, including the Boston Teachers Union, have called for schools to speed the suspension of unruly students, saying they endanger teachers and disrupt learning.

Two years ago, when Boston public schools experienced a sudden increase in violence, the union criticized the school department for not referring more students to special education.

Because of their size, the Commonwealth's biggest school systems recorded the most exclusions. Boston public schools, for example, had 194 students removed, double the 97 taken out in 1997-98. Springfield had 471, according to the most recent numbers, and the rising number has triggered a debate over whether schools are using consistent criteria to suspend or expel students.

The Springfield School Committee in a few weeks will hear recommendations to explain more clearly the consequences for student misbehavior -- an attempt to streamline a process that has varied among schools, Superintendent Joseph P. Burke said.

Burke said inconsistency is not the only reason behind the numbers in Springfield, which had about 26,500 students in 2000-01.

"What is fueling the increase are just more troubled students: the advancing number of crack babies that are entering into schools, the numbers of students with dysfunctional homes, the lack of models for how to behave, the latchkey kids who don't have anybody at home," Burke said. "The numbers on all of these are going up. As that happens, we're going to see students testing out boundaries in schools in ways they didn't use to."

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