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Kicked Out

Hartford's public schools aim to cut back on suspensions, and the drop-outs they create

By Daniel D'Ambrosio

August 28, 2008

The drop-out rate in Hartford's public high schools has long been a source of anguish among the city's teachers, school administrators and parents.

"Hartford's real dropout rate is two-thirds of students," says Marc Porter-McGee of New Haven-based Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, a statewide advocacy group. "Think about a high school diploma. It isn't a guarantee of a job and yet these are students without even that. You have to wonder what their job prospects are."

But a related statistic that has been most recently on the minds of educators and state legislators is the out-of-school suspension rate, so shockingly high in some cases that a law was passed last year to effectively put a stop to the suspensions this school year. Implementation of the law has been postponed to next July, however, as school districts scramble to come up with the space and personnel required to keep suspended students in-house.

In a report released this month, "Missing Out: Suspending Students from Connecticut Schools," authors Taby Ali and Alexandra Dufresne of Connecticut Voices For Children write that the percentage of students suspended in the 2006-2007 school year varied from one percent to 22 percent, with the statewide average coming in at seven percent.

Not surprisingly, Hartford schools were at the upper end of that spectrum, with a suspension rate of 19 percent, or 4,336 out of 22,328 students. Only Bridgeport schools were higher, suspending 22 percent of their students.

"When you have to do out-of-school suspensions, the culture of the school for those students is broken down," said Porter-McGee. "Discipline isn't something that comes when something goes wrong. It comes through every (contact) an adult has with that student, the expectations that are set and consistency with which they're set."

Miriam Morales-Taylor, Hartford's assistant superintendent for learning support services, agrees that rules have to be consistent. But she says that, with more than 1,000 students and 200 staff in Hartford's system, it can be difficult to keep everyone in line.

"If the rule is no cell phones, we have to do it in every classroom. If we don't, that's when we confuse the children," said Morales-Taylor.

When the new suspension law takes effect, in July 2009, the circumstances resulting in an out-of-school suspension will be considerably narrowed. "The law calls for in-school suspension unless the student's behavior is so disruptive or dangerous that he shall be excluded from school," said Alexandra Dufresne.

That's music to the ears of Hartford School Board member Andrea Comer, who says Hartford kids have been suspended in the past for all sorts of ridiculous reasons.

"We had a dismal, dismal record (of handing out suspensions) for things like walking the halls, or a student saying something a teacher didn't like," said Comer. She added that the frequent suspensions directly influenced the high dropout rate, because students who were already behind fell further behind. The "Missing Out" report also shows that, in 2007, Connecticut's Court Support Services Division reported that "89 percent of 16 and 17-year olds involved in the juvenile justice system had been suspended or expelled from school."

Further, Comer says that when Hartford police conduct regular truancy sweeps, the bulk of students picked up aren't truant, they're suspended.

"We end up losing them to the street," said Comer.

Yet, not everyone agrees with the action taken last year by the legislature to put the brakes on out-of-school suspensions. Patrice McCarthy, deputy director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, says removing a problem student from school can be an effective tool for teachers and administrators.

"Out-of-school suspension as part of a progressive policy is perfectly appropriate," said McCarthy. "It's not going to be your first disciplinary action, but in other situations, a one-day out-of-school suspension may be the only way to engage a parent or guardian on working with the school on issues a student has."

McCarthy said she recently had a conversation with an elementary school principal who suspended a second grader. "It's hard to claim (a second grader) is dangerous, but the only way the principal was able to engage the mother was to suspend the child for one day out of school rather than wait until he's in the sixth grade, when he is dangerous," said McCarthy.

And now McCarthy fears the legislature has taken away the flexibility school administrators had to deal with individual situations. But state Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy says that even under the new law, a principal will have the final say.

"The law asks a principal first and foremost to place suspended students in-house, but if the principal believes the behavior or circumstances warrant out-of-school suspension, he still has the authority to do that," said Murphy. "But he has to have justification for it."

For the proponents of the new law, the bottom line is that children have to be in school in order to help them.

"We may all wish to live in a world where every adorable 5-year-old comes into school ready to learn, but we don't," said Dufresne. "As a society, do you engage a child, teach him and give him the opportunity to succeed, or do you say, 'Sorry, we're going to exclude you.'?"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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