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Student suspensions drop in county's public schools

December 26, 2005|by KAREN HANNA

karenh@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - The number of students sitting at home to think about their misdeeds at school this year is on the decline, Washington County Public Schools officials said.

At E. Russell Hicks Middle School, where the number of suspensions has fallen from 94 last year to just 10 so far this year, Principal Roger Stenersen said teachers and administrators are working to build relationships with students and keep them in the classroom.

"If our goal is to improve student achievement, we shoot ourselves in the foot if we put them out for five days," Stenersen said in an interview earlier this month.

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According to Robert "Bo" Myers, executive director for secondary school administration, most suspensions this year average a day. In the "old days," suspensions never were less than three days, he said.

Suspensions of students in grades 6-12 across the county have dropped from 1,048 last year to just 266 through the first 64 days of school, Myers said. According to a Maryland State Department of Education report, 890 individual public-school students, including 751 students in middle school and high school, were suspended 1,292 times in Washington County last year.

Keeping students interested in learning can prevent behaviors that might send them out of the classroom, said Carol Costello, coordinator of alternative programs and student services.

"Bottom line is if we're doing better at connecting with kids, and we're keeping them in the classrooms, and we're doing a better job meeting them where they're at, it's all connected," Costello said earlier this month.

Costello said suspensions sometimes reward students who do not want to be in class anyway.

According to Stenersen, suspensions typically peak about February. In the midst of winter and the grind of the school year, students seem particularly prone to acting up, he said.

If the system's rate of suspensions remained constant throughout the school year, the county's middle schools and high schools this year would record about 798 suspensions - a 14 percent drop from last year.

Students who see teachers and school officials care about them are more likely to want to do well, said Heather Dixon, a dropout prevention specialist at South Hagerstown High School.

Dixon manages a caseload of about 100 high-risk students. Mounting discipline referrals or slipping grades can cause students to give up, she said. Dixon said she tries to reward students' efforts while guiding them to solve their own problems.

"If they see that light at the end of the tunnel getting dimmer and dimmer, that's when they drop (out)," Dixon said.

At E. Russell Hicks, Stenersen said teachers and administrators are focused on rewarding good behavior instead of reacting to bad behavior. Students who are good are eligible for tickets that they can use toward prizes or drawings.

The middle school works with parents to address behavioral problems, Stenersen said. In-school suspension, in which students work on class work outside their normal classrooms, and Antietam Academy at Western Heights Middle School are two alternative placements for students, Stenersen said.

According to state reports from 1998 through the 2004-05 school year, about three times more boys than girls have been suspended. Black students also are disproportionately suspended. Last year, about one-quarter of the students who were suspended in Washington County were black, though blacks made up only about 10 percent of the system's total population.

The most common triggers of suspension consistently fall under the state's general headings of attacks/threats/fighting and disrespect/insubordination/disruption.

Carol Costello, coordinator of alternative programs and student services, said teachers have become "much more conscious of getting to know their student as person." That means understanding students come to school with different backgrounds, problems and needs, she said.

At E. Russell Hicks, the emphasis on forming relationships not only has reduced suspensions, it has changed the environment, Stenersen said.

"I think more kids are enjoying themselves here than they have in the past," Stenersen said. "I don't think it's because we're stricter, and I don't think it's because we're looser. I think it's because we all know where we're going together."

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