Opinion: Baltimore County schools can find better disciplinary solutions than student removal

Published on: November 22, 2022 6:00 AM EST

Side view of young teacher scolding two guilty girls for bad behavior during lesson in art school

After essentially a year and a half of being online, school has changed. Maryland students returned to in-person school with gaps in their learning and effects on their behavior. And when things change, it’s tempting to cling more tightly to the strategies that we used before, to double down on what used to work. But it is an unfortunate truth that being tough with school discipline without addressing the root issues that lead to student misbehavior won’t fix anything.

If Baltimore County Public Schools and other Maryland districts truly want to make their schools safer for all students, they must be willing to embrace new strategies that are responsive to our new reality. They must resist the tough-on-crime rhetoric that is edging into school discipline discussions and resist relying only on exclusionary discipline to deal with student misbehavior.

Merely removing students from school does little to fix the problem of disruptive behavior, which can range from bullying to fighting to more serious infractions, such as bringing a weapon to school. It’s worth interrogating whether these forms of punishment make sense. For example, to some students, a suspension is hardly a consequence. Those switched to virtual classes just might decide not to log in.

Alternative schools can be a viable option to temporarily educate students who have been removed for serious offenses, but they should be used only in extreme circumstances.

Research confirms that using exclusionary discipline — such as suspensions, expulsions, and alternative placements — is ineffective and harmful. These methods of punishment create lower levels of school engagement, increase the probability that a student becomes involved with the criminal legal system and lead to higher levels of school violence and antisocial behavior. These are precisely the outcomes that schools should be trying to avoid.

And let’s not forget that MSDE data shows that exclusionary discipline techniques disproportionately impact Black students and disabled students. Black students and disabled students are more likely to be removed from school than white students and nondisabled students who exhibited the same misbehavior.

Put simply, relying only on exclusionary discipline is taking the easy way out. Obviously, nobody wants students to experience violence at school. Everyone wants schools to be a safe place where students can focus on learning. But when we shout “Suspension!” at every single incident, we aren’t making schools safer, we’re just kicking the can down the road. Maybe an individual classroom will be calmer for a few days, but when the suspended student comes back, the problems are likely to start all over again. During their exclusion from school, the students almost certainly didn’t learn any strategies to manage their behavior, and the cycle of disruption will continue. Furthermore, exclusionary discipline often results in students falling further behind academically, which only exacerbates behavioral issues.

At the same time, it can also be frustrating when schools use strategies such as restorative justice that seem too soft to have any impact. “What’s the point of having kids sit in a circle and talk about their feelings?” a parent might wonder.

When I was teaching and first asked to use restorative justice, I was also skeptical that this method would make a difference. But when restorative justice is implemented with fidelity and used alongside other discipline strategies, the data available shows that it makes schools safer, without needing to remove every student who gets into trouble. It’s not a silver bullet — it takes time, and everyone involved must trust the process. But a school is more likely to create an environment that is safer over the long term with restorative justice than with exclusionary discipline alone.

I genuinely feel for the students, teachers, administrators and parents who are trying to navigate changes in a post-Covid school environment. But doubling down on strategies that make behavior problems worse is not the way to make schools safer. Baltimore County would be better served by prioritizing staff members such as counselors who can work with students to prevent problem behaviors from occurring, rather than kicking students out of school after behaviors get out of control. It’s a big ask for everyone involved to resist relying on exclusionary discipline, but when it comes to our students — the literal future of our state — it’s an ask worth making.

Kaitlin Barnes is a student at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and a student attorney in the Youth, Education, and Justice Clinic. The clinic represents students who have been excluded from public schools throughout Maryland. She is also a former teacher in Baltimore County Public Schools.