ANNAPOLIS – A mix of shock and sadness, with a hint of disbelief — that’s how Robin El-Amin remembers feeling two years ago after learning her 5-year-old grandson was suspended from his East Baltimore kindergarten class for kicking a teacher’s aide.
When El-Amin showed up at Margaret Brent Elementary School that day, she got a copy of the contract the boy signed agreeing to his suspension, the letters of his name scribbled across the page. He had no clue what the word meant or how to say it.
“I’m expended,” said Orlando, now 7 and a student at a different Baltimore school.
“That’s when he could hardly write his name. That stuck there in my heart,” said El-Amin, who has custody of her grandson. “I did not excuse what he did, but I’m still saying that was an extreme.”
But what El-Amin considers a drastic response to her youngster’s behavior isn’t necessarily unusual in Maryland public schools, where 1,627 students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade were sent home during the 2001-02 school year, according to data from the state Department of Education. That includes 70 pre-kindergartners, 447 kindergartners and 1,110 first-graders.
A year earlier, 1,345 children were sent home statewide during their first three years of schooling.
The 2001-02 list of offenses is lengthy, with physical attacks, classroom disruptions and fighting topping it off. Other behaviors — though far fewer — include cutting class, carrying a weapon to school, explosives, drugs, sexual activity and extortion.
Suspension policies vary by district, which could help explain why some school systems suspend more students than others. But the numbers indicate Baltimore had the most, 353 during the 2001-02 school year, followed by Baltimore County, 303; Prince George’s, 201; Anne Arundel, 194; and Charles, 104.
School officials say out-of-school suspensions are often a last resort for administrators — a reaction to drastic behaviors that put other children in a classroom at risk. But to El-Amin and others, the numbers are simply too high, especially for youngsters who are trying to adapt to new environments but end up acting out in the process.
“I think that being new to a big class like that was a shock to the system, and then the class was a (predominantly male) class,” El-Amin said of Orlando’s kindergarten experience. “To him it was wrestling and having fun.”
Child care experts and juvenile justice advocates question whether some young children even deserve the punishment, and whether a day at home is more of a reward than a reprimand.
“To me, it is insane,” said Odeana Neal, associate professor of juvenile justice at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “Aren’t there disciplinary measures that can be taken, other than keeping them out of school?”
When most people think of students being suspended, Neal said, they’re focused on older, larger children who might pose a physical threat to classmates and teachers. They aren’t picturing offenders in preschool, kindergarten or first grade or “children that small,” Neal said.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, students between ages 4 and 6 stand between 40 to 46 inches tall and weigh between 35 and 46 pounds.
Neal chuckled at the fact that a pre-kindergartner was suspended during the 2000-01 school year for sexual harassment.
“What could you possibly do?” Neal asked. “I don’t even know what that is when you’re 4.”
James McComb, executive director of Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth, said he doesn’t even believe out-of-school suspensions teach children they’ve done something wrong.
McComb has lobbied unsuccessfully for the past couple years for state lawmakers to pass a moratorium ending suspensions for elementary school students. This year, moratorium bills in the Senate and House of Delegates never emerged from committees.
“What we’re saying is, suspending kids doesn’t contribute to any solution,” McComb said. “For kids who are seeking attention, this is a reward.”
For Orlando, El-Amin said, “It was like, ‘Yippee, I’m being sent home.'”
School officials acknowledge out-of-school suspensions do not always appear to be punishments, at least to the state’s youngest children, said Jim Dryden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals, which opposed the moratorium bill.
In fact, Dryden said, sending students home from school is a last resort that most principals don’t want to take.
Dryden, a retired elementary school principal who spent 25 years in Harford County Public Schools, remembered suspending a kindergartner only once, probably for just one day, and that was after the child stabbed a classmate with a pencil.
“No principal I’ve ever known enjoys suspending anybody. It has a negative impact on the school’s report card,” Dryden said. “It’s not in our best interest to do it, except for the other 25 children in that classroom.”
And aside from safety issues, principals must consider the efforts of their teachers, Dryden said. To not suspend a student after a staff member has disciplined the child and repeatedly reported offenses may not be the best way to deal with the problem, he said.
“You have to be supportive of them,” he said of teachers. “You’re going to have a morale problem.”
Child care and juvenile justice advocates acknowledge suspensions may be necessary in rare instances, but they take issue with the number of young children suspended for seemingly lesser violations, like insubordination and tardiness.
Suspending a child for the latter offense could be meant to punish parents more than children, because they are often responsible for getting a child to school on time.
“If you’re having some tardiness trouble with the child . . . it’s thought to drive a message home,” agreed Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
Maryland’s numbers, compiled annually by the state Department of Education, do not indicate how school system policies vary, which could help explain some of the disparities among districts.
“Some counties are more apt to suspend than others for the same offense,” Reinhard said. “It’s clear that there is just a larger percentage in some districts than others.”
That’s the case in Baltimore, where suspensions have risen in since the school system implemented zero-tolerance policies, said spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt.
“The fact that we are at the top of the list . . . says we have taken very seriously the issue of student behavior,” Pyatt said. “I don’t see it as a bad thing.”
Baltimore County spokesman Charles Herndon said the district’s numbers reflect a commitment to address discipline problems early in students’ careers. He also noted the county’s figures are consistent with Maryland’s other large school districts, such as Prince George’s County and Baltimore City.
“We do have a fairly strong behavior policy which is outlined in a student behavior handbook,” Herndon said. “I think that reflects that we take very seriously our disciplinary code.”
Huntley Cross, special assistant for alternative programs in Anne Arundel County, said some adults retain their image of elementary school, but it’s much different today.
“Unfortunately, the behaviors that at one time trickled from high school to middle school have now trickled to elementary school,” said Cross, whose county suspended 114 first-graders, 66 kindergartners and 14 pre-kindergartners in 2001-02, according to state data.
“There are certain infractions that call for suspension from school,” Cross said. “It’s usually something that’s dangerous or threatening in nature or a repeated offense.”
Even those who oppose suspension policies acknowledge the punishment may be warranted in extreme circumstances.
But Neal said elementary school problems resulting in suspensions could be corrected in other ways — ways that she said won’t leave children scarred in the long run.
“I think that what these suspension policies end up doing,” she said, “is turning good kids who do bad things into bad kids.”