By Jessica Clark, ACLU of Maryland

Maryland is once again at the forefront of education reform with the passage of state discipline regulations aimed at ending the use of counterproductive and racially biased zero-tolerance policies. The state is the first in the nation to enact policy changes following the announcement earlier this month of new federal discipline guidelines around racial disproportionality and suspensions.

The simple truth is that students do not learn when they are not in school. Last year, Maryland schools suspended enough students to fill Camden Yards. Each of those suspensions represents precious classroom time lost to students, especially for those put out of school for minor offenses that could be addressed in more constructive ways. Last year alone, 34,000 students missed classroom instruction for these types of non-violent offenses - and the vast majority of them were African American students or students with disabilities.

Nonetheless, it was no accident that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder came to Maryland, specifically Baltimore City, to make their announcement of the new federal guidelines. Through the tireless efforts of advocates, state officials, and parents and families across the state, Maryland has already made great strides in reducing the use of suspensions.

After several years of workgroups, comment periods, and revisions, the Maryland State Board of Education has adopted model reforms. By providing discretion in discipline to local administrators and encouraging systems to adopt discipline policies based on "the goals of fostering, teaching, and acknowledging positive behavior," the board hopes to reduce the use of harsh out-of-school discipline responses for non-violent offenses.

The new regulations will require districts to directly address how suspensions are administered and who is being suspended. The regulations shine a spotlight on racial disproportionality in suspensions and expulsions by requiring data collection and reporting on discipline and school arrests. And they will promote fairness and equity in the disciplinary process for all students -- even the ones that are in trouble -- to keep the pathway to academic success open to all students.

In addition, new data requirements on arrests are especially important to the continuing efforts to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Too often, police are used to handle run-of-the-mill student discipline. By requiring districts to report on their use of school resource officers, we can ensure that police are only being used for serious threats to safety. This is especially important because the new federal guidelines made it clear that schools are responsible for actions of police on campus, and must ensure that they are treating all students equally.

We applaud the Maryland Board of Education on the passage of these new regulations. They encourage schools to treat each child and situation individually, and to improve student behavior without missed instruction time.

The regulations are a long-awaited step in the right direction for the students and families of Maryland - and offer a first-in-the-nation model for other states.