August 20, 2019: A little over a year ago, we received a call from a Baltimore County parent concerned that the school district had forced her daughter to transfer to an alternative school after being in a fight for the first time. A few weeks later, we got another call, this time from a parent whose daughter was transferred to an alternative school after she ended up in a fight with students who were bullying her. As we worked with these two families, we discovered that the Baltimore County Public Schools’ discipline policy allowed for such involuntary transfers in violation of state law.
State discipline regulations define any removal of a student from their regular school program for disciplinary reasons as a suspension or expulsion. The law establishes a specific process for suspensions and expulsions of more than ten days and limits them to instances where there is an imminent threat of serious harm or chronic and extreme disruption. By treating a transfer to an alternative school as something other than a suspension or expulsion, BCPS was getting around these standards, and their suspension and expulsion numbers appeared artificially low.
We appealed the students’ cases to the school board, demanding that BCPS revise its policies to comply with state law. The cases quickly settled, and we began meeting with the school district to talk about the systemic problem. Over the next several months, we worked with Disability Rights Maryland (which had observed the same trend) to encourage the school board to reform these policies as part of its policy review process. We wrote numerous letters and prepared written and spoken comments for school board meetings. We explained how forced transfers relegate students to alternative schools that provide a lower quality of education and disrupt academic progress and social relationships. Students in alternative schools often feel like the school district has given up on them and are more likely to drop out. We also pointed out that districts disproportionately push Black students and students with disabilities into alternative schools.
Meeting resistance from the board, we stepped up the public pressure, reaching out to clients, the NAACP Baltimore County branch, Maryland Office of the Public Defender, state delegates, a mentoring program, the teachers’ union, and the school system’s internal Student Discipline Council. We also discussed BCPS’s policies during an interview with WYPR, a local public radio station. After making one final offer to work with the district, we were invited to review the policies to resolve the alternative school transfer issue. We helped BCPS adjust the language, and in June, the board passed the revised policies. This is a major step in ending forced transfers, and we look forward to working with the district to implement and monitor the changes.