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Expulsions hurt students, district, community

The Medford School District is on a mission to improve graduation rates. A good place to start would be to stop kicking so many kids out of school.

As a story in Sunday's Mail Tribune detailed, the number of students who are suspended or expelled from Medford's public schools dwarfs the statistics from the county's four other large school districts combined. Medford has consistently suspended between 1,000 and 1,300 students every school year since 2007-08, with expulsions ranging from a low of 58 to a high of 85 in that same time period.

While there are no doubt students on those lists who richly deserved to be shown the door,  when a district's suspensions and expulsions routinely approach 10 percent of the student body, it suggests an institutional problem. Add to that statewide numbers showing suspensions and expulsions dropping by a third since 2007 — while Medford's maintained a fairly steady state — and it becomes more than a suggestion.

The Medford School Board took a step in the right direction last week when it dropped the mandatory yearlong expulsion for students possessing any weapon. Now the mandatory expulsion applies only to firearms. That means a kid who absent-mindedly brings a hunting knife to school won't automatically be tossed off the property. Administrators still can expel students for carrying other weapons or for threatening fellow students, but now they can use their judgment as to when that's necessary.

The School Board's vote will have limited effect, however, because weapons account for only 8 percent of expulsions. Drugs are the reason for the bulk, 60 percent, of those kicked out of school. A student receives a five to 10-day suspension for a drug offense; a second offense results in expulsion.

We are not encouraging the district to molly-coddle kids who regularly disrupt school or are violent. Some kids do need to be sent elsewhere, but that should be about Option No. 5, not Option No. 1. Expelling a student who is caught smoking pot twice may appeal to adults' law-and-order side, but in truth it's a defeat for the school system and the community. Students who are removed from school fall behind in their schoolwork and likely come back — if they do come back — with even less of a connection to the school and to the idea of graduating. When they don't graduate, their chances of being successful go down and our chances of paying for their treatment or incarceration go up.

The district has a lot of smart people who deal with kids on a regular basis. It certainly seems that, without launching a three-year-long best practices study, they could steal good ideas from other districts. Phoenix-Talent, for instance, has launched a support system process at each of its schools. We don't know exactly how it works, but it must work: Phoenix has seen its suspensions and expulsions drop significantly.

Medford's new superintendent, Brian Shumate firmly believes students need reasons to want to come to school, beyond the expectations their parents or society put on them. We agree and are encouraged by the direction the district is taking. But for some of the tougher cases, the district is going to have to take extra steps to show those kids that their schools also want them and want them to succeed.