Mass. Working On Guidelines To Keep Kids In School

The state is taking public input over the next few weeks as it crafts guidelines aimed at keeping students in school by reducing suspensions and expulsions.

The guidelines are part of a law passed in 2012 that requires public and charter school principals to keep students out of school only as a last resort. The proposed guidelines would require school officials to notify parents of suspensions, allow students to appeal and let those suspended complete assignments.

The public can comment until March 7, and the new rules will take effect July 1.

Advocates say limiting suspensions is important because suspended and expelled students are more likely to be held back, drop out or land in the juvenile justice system.

"If kids are not in school, they can't learn," said Thomas Mela, senior projects manager at the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a nonprofit group that pushed for the legislation. "That is our main concern."

A 2011 study of 1 million Texas middle school students by the Council of State Governors found that 97 percent of suspensions were for offenses such as classroom disruption or insubordination. Only 3 percent were for more serious offenses such as weapon or drug possession.

"It is counterintuitive to punish students by excluding them from school when the one place they are safe and supported is school," said Joan Meschino, executive director of the Massachusetts Appleseed Center, which studies juvenile justice and education issues. She said data shows that students who are male, black and Latino, or have special needs are more likely than others to be suspended.

Some opposed the new legislation, saying suspensions are necessary to keep order in the classroom, but it passed anyway. Mitchell D. Chester, commissioner of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said at a meeting last month that regulations must strike a balance between preserving students' rights and maintaining a safe and orderly environment for others to learn.

Ayomide Olumuyiwa, a high school junior in Boston who has been involved in designing the new regulations as a member of the Boston Student Advisory Council, said keeping students out of school for minor offenses is detrimental. Boston Public Schools got a head start on the law by implementing a new code of conduct this fall.

"What are students going to be doing for that one week?" Olumuyiwa said. "They will be watching TV, playing video games or going out on the streets and getting themselves into trouble."

Charter schools in particular have high rates of suspensions, said Hareen Chernow, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Many have zero-tolerance policies in which students are suspended for specific infractions regardless of their individual circumstances.

President Obama's administration last month issued sweeping but nonbinding recommendations that suggest, among other things, removing students from classrooms only as a last resort for the worst behavior and getting them back to class as soon as possible. Maryland and cities such as Los Angeles and Denver have recently passed disciplinary guidelines.

Advocates want to make sure suspended students still have an opportunity to learn. Among options already being tried are an online learning laboratory and tutoring programs.


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