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Using Online Learning as Punishment Is Bad for Students

Baltimore County assigned 133 students to its Virtual Learning Program as a means of punishment, which experts say is opposite of what students facing discipline need to keep them engaged and enrolled.

Until the middle of January, Ryan took the bus to school. The junior at Lansdowne High School walked into the blue, silver and brick building, where he saw his friends, took Advanced Placement classes and sometimes stayed late to participate in the Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

But after the 16-year-old made threats and was suspended, he spent the majority of his spring semester at home, staring at his laptop, which he used to log in to Baltimore County, Md., Public Schools’ Virtual Learning Program.

His biomedical science class on the human body wasn’t offered, a blow to the aspiring anesthesiologist. Nor was AP English, a class that could have boosted his GPA because the school system gives the course grade extra value.

Online schooling did little to engage him, and his grades took a nosedive.

Ryan was one of 133 students the county assigned last year to its Virtual Learning Program as a punishment. Although the school system has used various forms of e-learning as a disciplinary method since 2011, the 2022-23 school year was the first time students in trouble were enrolled in the distinct Virtual Learning Program, which the system says has more supports than other e-learning methods.

Experts and parents say online learning is the wrong approach for students facing discipline, who need extra in-person support to learn, stay enrolled and avoid contact with the criminal justice system. The county school system says the Virtual Learning Program is just one disciplinary option, and offers a safe and effective alternative for students and their schools.

The Baltimore Sun agreed to identify Ryan, now 17, and his mother by only their first names due to her concern that his school disciplinary record could affect his future. He was sent to the virtual program after he was accused of threatening other students because he sent them photos of himself with a gun and bullets after they said they would beat him up.

Normally an engaged student, Ryan said his grades “plummeted” to include at least one “D” when he entered the virtual program. His teachers simultaneously taught two groups of students, splitting their focus between those who were learning in person and those in virtual schooling.

“It was bad; I had a lack of motivation,” he said.

His mother, Kimberly, said he was sleeping late and missing classes until she intervened. His grades later improved, but Ryan still viewed virtual learning as inferior to in-person school and something he equated with methods he’d had to adapt to during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s never going to be as effective or as engaging,” he said.

The county created the program amid the pandemic, which closed school buildings. It is classified as its own school, and educates about 700 high schoolers overall.

By the end of the 2022-23 school year, the system had transferred 65 high school students, 54 middle school students and 14 elementary students to the virtual program for discipline, according to data it provided in response to a Maryland Public Information Act request.

In contrast, Baltimore City Public Schools in the past two school years had referred fewer than 10 students per year to its virtual program for disciplinary reasons, according to its response to a Public Information Act request.

Gboyinde Onijala, a county schools’ spokesperson, said in a statement that the system’s response to student infractions and disruptive or dangerous behaviors varies based on the circumstances.

“Virtual learning is one of those options that can be utilized, and that decision involves school-based and central office staff, as well as the student and their family,” the statement reads.

Ryan and his mother said they fought to keep him out of virtual learning.

Other options include assigning a student to one of the school system’s alternative schools or a program with evening and Saturday courses at certain county schools.

Onijala said the students moved to virtual for disciplinary reasons represented “an extremely small percentage” of the district’s 111,084 students.

Although virtual learning is used successfully with some students, such as those who are sick, some U.S. studies have shown it reduces academic achievement, as well as harming students’ well-being. What’s more, research shows discipline that keeps kids out of school can increase their chances of dropping out and push them into the criminal justice system.

“Even if, technically, you’re at home, and you can access the internet and have a safe place to study and have online courses that, technically, would allow you to earn the credits that you would earn in school ... the isolation and stigmatization associated with being away from your school has a further harmful impact on kids’ learning,” said Monisha Cherayil, an attorney at the Public Justice Center, a Maryland nonprofit legal services and advocacy organization.

Cherayil said many students in virtual settings struggle without close relationships with peers and supportive adults at school. Also, those who are removed from their regular learning environment for more than 10 days may be stigmatized because they’re not with their peers.

Maryland legislators have taken steps to improve tracking of students removed from their regular school programs due to their concerns over what State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury described as “the misuse or overuse of school removals” for students arrested for certain offenses. In response, the State Board of Education on July 25 amended state regulations in part to specify the data school systems must report to the state education department when that happens. It includes whether a student’s regular program was changed and demographic information.

State Department of Education spokesperson Jena Frick said in a July 27 email that the agency does not keep data on county school systems and the use of virtual learning as a disciplinary measure.

Ryan’s mother, Kimberly, questioned why the Baltimore County system uses virtual education for kids like him. “The Virtual Learning Program is not designed to handle children in those situations; they need further support, if anything,” she said. “Using virtual as a means to punish is not helping the student in the long run.”

Ryan got into trouble shortly after a brutal stabbing at his school. In January, after a 12th grade student seriously injured a 15-year-old, Ryan made posts on social media making light of the violence. On Instagram, he joked: “they playing samurai in the cafeteria.”

Aniya Ritenour, a friend of the 15-year-old, messaged Ryan on Instagram, according to screenshots The Sun obtained, saying that if he thought what happened to the victim was funny, “you gon get beat up.”

Ryan posted a photo of himself on social media with a photo of what appeared to be a semi-automatic gun with the caption “Ain’t nobody bulletproof,” according to a letter from his school. He sent a direct message to another student with a photo of himself holding up a case of bullets and wrote “armour piercing rounds hurt like a b----” and “I’ll just wait til I see aniya outside of school.”

“He didn’t just send pictures; he made threats,” Aniya’s father, Jimmy Ritenour, said. “When you have words behind it, that makes it a little more adamant.”

County police investigated Ryan’s posts and visited him at home Jan. 11. They closed the case after interviewing him and his mother. Police didn’t find any real guns, only a prop. Officers confiscated ammunition his mother said was left over from a shooting range.

He was suspended for 10 days.

For a Maryland school to keep a student out of their regular learning program longer than 10 days, a district staff member appointed by the superintendent must find a student presents an “imminent threat of serious harm to other students or staff” or engaged in “chronic and extreme disruption of the educational process” and that other appropriate interventions have been exhausted, according to state law.

Lansdowne administrators wrote in a letter to Ryan’s mother Jan. 20 that they recommended her son stay out of school for “a period of time” because his return “would create an imminent threat towards Ryan as a result of his insensitive and extreme response to the aftermath of this incident.”

“Students are angry about the posts and were not swayed by the apologies,” Assistant Principal Catherine R. Smith wrote. “We believe Ryan’s presence in the building would trigger students and create an unsafe environment for him.”

At a conference in February, administrators decided Ryan would be transferred to the Virtual Learning Program. “‘He’s not suspended, he’s not reprimanded, he’s transferred to the Virtual Learning Program, and that’s it,’” his mother said she was told.

For two years, Ryan had been part of an Army JROTC program and was aiming for an ROTC scholarship. Now, he could no longer participate.

After his semester at home, her 17-year-old will return to Lansdowne as a senior this month.

Ryan said he would have preferred to return to Lansdowne last semester, but is grateful not to be expelled or have the discipline on his record.

Kimberly said she was upset that her son had foolishly put his future at risk. However, she also believed the race of her son, who she described as Black and Asian, contributed to how white school administrators treated him.

“For Ryan, he definitely did something, but to me, you apply inconsistent standards,” she said. “They looked at what was best for BCPS, as opposed to the child.”

Mahnaz Moallem, Towson University’s chair of the Department of Learning Technologies, Design & School Library Media, said online learning formats range from simple face-to-face instruction to other more targeted methods that adjust to students’ needs and use materials developed for online delivery.

She said using virtual learning as a consequence sends the wrong message about a method that has the potential to benefit students. Moallem said that although it’s a better alternative than students not having any learning, this process has varying impacts on students of different socioeconomic statuses. For example, a student in a low-income household might not have the learning environment of a student in a wealthier family, Moallem said.

Research in the U.S. on the so-called school-to-prison pipeline has shown school discipline disproportionately affects marginalized groups, said Jessica Den Houter, a teaching fellow in Bronfein Family Law Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Studies also show that measures that exclude kids from school aren’t effective, Den Houter said, because they don’t address underlying issues.

A 2015 study cited in a Maryland state commission report found each suspension decreased by 20 percent the odds of a student graduating. In other research, data collected in Texas showed students who were suspended or expelled for less serious offenses were almost three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system the next year.

Cherayil said many Maryland students are suspended, expelled or “expelled off the books” for infractions such as being disruptive or not being in class.

“We see it as an unfortunate response that comes into play when schools maybe just aren’t equipped to deal with a kid who is difficult or annoying or has some of their own internal behavior issues,” Cherayil said.

Jimmy Ritenour’s daughter also spent last semester in virtual learning, something her family requested for her safety after the stabbing and Ryan’s messages. However, Ritenour said the school had been pushing him to place his daughter, who struggled with behavioral issues, in virtual schooling even before the stabbing.

Ritenour dismissed the virtual program as “laziness” on the part of the system and said it was generally bad for students, including his child.

“This is just a way for them not to have to deal with it,” he said. “Since you can’t do what you’re supposed to do in school, we’re going to send you home and have your parents deal with it.”

©2023 The Baltimore Sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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