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Thousands of Massachusetts students were suspended from school during the 2009-2010 school year, many of them for offenses that included skipping class, tardiness and other minor infractions under "zero tolerance" discipline policies.
Locally, Lawrence handed out 1,445 out-of-school suspensions in 2009-2010. Haverhill recorded 681; Andover, 117; Methuen, 94; and North Andover, 80. All of those numbers were up significantly from two years earlier. (See accompanying chart.)
While data from the 2009-10 school year is the most recent available that includes a detailed breakdown of offenses, the troubling trend appears to have continued in 2010-11.
In-school and out-of-school suspensions in 2010-11 totaled more than 75,000, accounting for thousands of days of lost classroom time for students, many of whom are on the fringes of dropping out of school entirely, critics said.
Topping the list was Springfield, with more than 3,000 out-of-school suspensions during the 2010-2011 school year, followed by Boston, Lynn, Worcester and Brockton, each with more than 2,000, and Holyoke, Fall River, Lawrence, Lowell and New Bedford, with more than 1,000 out-of-school suspensions each.
Yet of more concern for critics is the number of students who have lost class time for minor infractions.
The more detailed numbers available for 2009-10 indicate that, statewide, students lost almost 54,000 classroom days for offenses deemed to be non-violent and non-drug-related. That was more than the days lost by students charged with gun, alcohol, knife and explosive possession, sexual assault, theft, and vandalism combined, state data shows.
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokesman J.C. Considine said the state considers school discipline a local matter. But it urges school districts "to offer some type of alternative education wherever possible" for suspended or expelled students. School districts are under no obligation to do so, however, and few actually do, education advocates say.
Lawrence Assistant Superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron said her teachers send work home with students who receive out-of-school suspensions and allow them to make up work upon their return.
"We try very hard to make sure that they're continuing with the work or that they have opportunities at school to keep it up," Bergeron said. "We don't want it to be a double punishment."
The lost schooling can begin at an early age.
Children as young as 4 were excluded from school for at least one day during the 2009-2010 school year. That same year, students from pre-school to third grade lost 1,825 classroom days for non-violent and non-drug related offenses that could include swearing or truancy.
Considine, the state's education spokesman, said more than 2,100 students in pre-school through third grade received suspensions during the 2009-2010 school year, 1,546 of them for offenses that were considered violent or drug-related.
Among those students was an 8-year-old Taunton boy suspended and ordered to undergo psychological testing because his stick-figure drawing of a crucified Christ was considered too violent.
Locally, Lawrence suspended a Guilmette School third-grader for 45 days for fighting in 2009-2010, and a second-grader for 15 days for inappropriate touching in 2007-2008. Two Tarbox third-graders each received 45-day suspensions in 2009-2010 for fighting.
North Andover suspended a Franklin School first-grader for 48 days in 2007-2008 for vandalism. Superintendent Christopher Hottel was not leading the district at the time and had no details on the incident.
"When a child as young as 4 is suspended, something is wrong," said Barbara Best, director of foundation relations and special projects with the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.
"We don't have a child problem, we have an adult problem if we're suspending 4, 5 and 6-year-olds,"she added.
Of the almost one million public school students in Massachusetts in the 2009-2010 school year, 7,075 students from pre-school to 12th grade were tossed from school for offenses considered minor, Considine said.In all, Bay State students lost a total of 199,056 days to in- school and out-of-school suspensions.
The reason for so much lost class time is due to strict disciplinary measures that can be traced back to the 1990s, when violent street gangs began to emerge.
It wasn't until April 20, 1999, however, that school violence became a bloody reality when two high school seniors, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and massacred 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves.
"Suspension became the automatic response to misbehavior," said Johanna Wald, who has worked on school discipline issues for the Charles Hamilton Huston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. Wald said drugs, guns and other threatened and real school shootings have created an era of "zero-tolerance policies" in many schools.
"What is lacking is how to create a pipeline that makes kids successful," added Melissa Pearrow, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
Haverhill Superintendent James Scully said parents also have a role to play. And when parents fail to discipline their children, he said, the schools have an obligation to step in.
"It's not only the school's role to educate students on physics and English and math and the sciences, it's also our responsibility to let youngsters know that they have to be accountable for their deeds and their actions," Scully said.
Sometimes that means removing an unruly child.
"I can't put someone in a classroom that's going to interfere with the learning of 25 other students that are very caring and want an education," he said.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (necir-bu.org) is a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University and supported in part by a Bay State media group that includes The Eagle-Tribune. Eagle-Tribune Staff Writer Alex Bloom contributed to this report.
Paul Andrews, director of professional development and government services for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said discipline policies need to be consistent, fair, and progressive so that punishment increases in severity with each new occurrence. School administrators also need to be able to use their own discretion to better resolve issues, he said, adding that parental involvement and support is also key.
"It requires the cooperation of local government, families and schools," he said. "We all have to work together. We all have a responsibility to make this work."
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (necir-bu.org) is a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University and supported in part by a Bay State media group that includes The Eagle-Tribune. Staff Writer Alex Bloom contributed to this report.