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Baltimore County school board member speaks out on student discipline in schools

Lily Rowe, District Six Baltimore County School Board Member

Baltimore County school board member, Lily Rowe, says there is a middle road when it comes to handing the discipline of students who disrupt classes or harm other students or teachers. “There is a lot that should be done between ‘nothing’ and ‘detention’ to reform juvenile delinquency in schools.”

Beginning in 2014, Baltimore County Public Schools – along with school systems across the state and nation – instituted a new policy which aimed to address a gap between suspension rates of black and white students.

Guidance handed down from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and Department of Justice (DOJ) sought to address the disparity between students by race, in order to interrupt what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.  Data from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights showed that for every one white student suspended, three black students are suspended and the ED and DOJ said it was putting black students at a disadvantage, by setting them up for failure through missed class time, isolation from their peers, and early negative encounters with law enforcement.

But of all students across all races who act out in school, Rowe says that “childhood trauma and poverty cause children to make very bad decisions in addition to a lack of supports in their life.” She said that by not upholding the bar of expectations for all students, it may be doing more harm than good.  Content of character is “built,” she said.  And addressing all student behavior appropriately serves students in the long-run.

During an interview with WBFF-TV Project Baltimore that aired on Monday night, Rowe said she has deep concerns about the futures of school children who have learned that their behavior will not lead to consequences. She says she is concerned that it will ultimately lead them to the very place relaxed school discipline policies aim to avoid: that school-to-prison pipeline.

Data found by WBFF showed that the number of Baltimore County Public School students referred to the state’s Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) who had received probation or juvenile detention is down 42% over the last five years.  But during the same time period, the number of weapons confiscated from Baltimore County students (in schools) is up 35% and reports of bullying increased by 55%. WBFF also found that from 2014 to 2018, nearly 1,100 more acts of violence have been reported in Baltimore County’s classrooms.

Rowe told The Gunpowder Gazette, “When trauma isn’t addressed and kids act out and receive no consequences, they escalate their behavior. When that behavior escalates to the point of juvenile delinquency and there are still no consequences, then behavior continues to escalate and delinquency combines with truancy. By that time, a child might be tried as an adult and get a 20-year sentence. How is that helping anyone?”

Rowe echoed similar sentiments given by St. Paul, Minnesota teacher, Aaron Benner, who fought St. Paul Public Schools over its lax discipline policies. Benner, a tenured teacher, who was the only black male instructor in his school, fought administrators over the school district’s discipline policies.

Benner said he watched some of his students suddenly devolve into unruly, violent and disrespectful children.  He said students were aware that they had no consequences for their behavior and he said he was worried about their life trajectories.

Like Rowe, Benner, said the changes made to his school’s discipline policies were leading kids to the school-to-prison pipeline that relaxed discipline policies were intending to avoid. Specifically, Benner was concerned about his black students – particularly males – and the precedent being set for them in the school building, behavior which may be carried on into adulthood.

Lowering the bar for students isn’t the answer, Benner said.  But that by upholding high standards for all students would mature them into functioning and successful adults.

See: [Gunpowder Gazette: Punished for advocacy: A Minnesota teacher’s victorious legal battle against retaliation over race-focused discipline policy.]

Rowe said, “I’m not suggesting we should lock up every kid who commits a minor offense. Where I grew up we had mandatory court ordered community service and civics classes. Kids learned that there were long term consequences for continuing down the path of escalating offenses.”

Rowe pointed to Baltimore County’s Juvenile Offenders in Need of Supervision (JOINS) program. “We have the JOINS program which does some of this in Baltimore County, except it’s only for first offenders and there are zero consequences to just blowing it off. A referral to DJS means nothing. It’s an empty threat. The same kids get arrested repeatedly and most get a ‘case dismissed’ letter without so much as a court hearing. Then they go to school and brag to other kids how nothing happened.”

“I would love to see more juvenile offenders with minor offences court ordered into the JOINS program and for some state funding to support their efforts,” Rowe said. “How JOINS works is kids are offered that if they complete the program they can avoid a DJS referral. But DJS dismisses cases without even a court hearing. How in the world can a person get arrested and never stand before a judge? I can’t even do that for a speeding ticket unless I just pay the fine.”

In February, Rowe sought to support impoverished students who attend Baltimore County schools with free school breakfast. She asked the school board to approve $1 million in funding for the program which would serve targeted schools with the highest concentrated levels of poverty in the district.  The board agreed, but Rowe says the school system has yet to implement the program for which the board and the county approved the funding.

“The current status of the breakfast program is that we have seventeen schools encompassing over 18,000 students who could be getting universal free breakfast under the state program except that [Baltimore County Public Schools] has yet to enroll those schools. I’m not sure why. “

Rowe says that, as it stands, students’ over all best interests are not being served and they could be supported better. “The entire juvenile justice system needs a full overhaul because, the way it is right now, it’s basically a ‘catch and release’ program, except for the most violent children.  But in some cases, not even them.”

Rowe’s full Project Baltimore interview can be viewed here.
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