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Restore relationships with students; don’t kick them out

I remember hearing about Jeremiah, a first-grade student in Minneapolis Public Schools, from another teacher. He had refused to do his work for the 10th time that day and yelled inappropriate language at his teacher. As a result, Jeremiah was suspended. After talking to him, my colleague realized that the student wasn’t surprised. He had made the connection that if he was struggling or frustrated, he wouldn’t be welcome in the classroom.

Meghna Sohoni

While this may seem like a small, isolated incident, too many students of color in our classrooms are receiving a problematic message: This space is not for you. In St. Paul Public Schools and Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) combined, black students make up 33 percent of the student population but account for 74 percent of total disciplinary actions. These disparities are inexcusable, and it’s time that we begin changing our mindset around discipline to let students know they are valuable members of our school community.

Most suspensions do not involve violence

Some may incorrectly assume that most suspensions are a last resort to address extreme behavior such as violence. However, roughly 70 percent of suspensions do not involve violence, and nearly 40 percent of suspensions are for disruptive disturbance, a vague and subjective category where racial disparities between students of color and white students are most acute. This could merely be eye rolling or refusal to do work.

This is unacceptable given that suspensions can be life altering for students. Students who have been suspended once in ninth grade are twice as likely to drop out of high school as students who have not been suspended. Students who drop out are 63 times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system than to become college graduates.

Sending students out of the classroom is also counterproductive. When a student acts out, all too often it is because he or she is struggling with the material in class or issues the student is facing outside of school. Sending them away neither helps students understand the material better nor learn to channel their emotions productively. It’s not surprising, then, that 50 percent of students who get suspended are more likely to receive additional suspensions. With fewer hours in the classroom and no focus on helping students learn to deal constructively with their emotions, it is no wonder that small behavioral issues can spiral out of control, sending students down a bad path.

Alternatives are more effective

There are alternatives to suspension that have been shown to be more effective at addressing student behavior, keeping students in the classroom, and improving classroom and school climate. In some Minneapolis Public Schools, restorative practices are being used to achieve this. Latrell (a pseudonym) is a current kindergartner in MPS. He has a history of using inappropriate language and has trouble dealing with frustration. Rather than kicking him out of the classroom, his teachers used restorative practices so that Latrell began to understand how his actions hurt others and worked on repairing harm. His teachers also worked to give him tools to understand and begin to regulate his own emotions. At just 6 years old, Latrell could have been one out of the 45,964 students labeled as “disruptive” and barred from the class and that day’s learning time. Instead, he was given a chance to succeed and avoided being labeled at a young age. He has learned strategies to cope with his frustration, rather than being sent out of the classroom with no action plan.

The good news is that there is a bill in the Minnesota Legislature that could put students all across our state — not just those in Minneapolis — on a better path. The Student Inclusion and Engagement Act would keep students in the classroom by increasing the use of alternatives to suspensions, limiting exclusionary practices, and improving training, support and data systems. In times when people are being told that they are not welcome to our country, as educators we need to make sure we are sending the opposite message to students in the classroom. Legislators should consider an inclusive approach that invests in alternatives, and ensures suspensions are a last resort.

Meghna Sohoni is a fifth-grade teacher at Richard Green Central Park School, Minneapolis Public Schools.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by howard miller on 02/27/2017 - 10:45 am.

    Early steps toward a bigger achievement gap

    Suspension and certainly expulsion are pretty clear stations on the road to a yawning racial achievement gap. As a guardian ad litem working with traumatized kids, often of color, the frequency of suspension and earlier manifestations of discipline my wards experience, is appalling.

    There are benign and redemptive alternatives which would move the ‘behavior problem’ child along the road to graduation and academic success rather than toward the slippery slope to incarceration. If only we would choose to use them.

  2. Submitted by Michael Hess on 02/27/2017 - 12:18 pm.

    Complicated Problem

    from the article: “He had made the connection that if he was struggling or frustrated, he wouldn’t be welcome in the classroom”.

    Really. Do you think that Jeremiah was the only student who was struggling, or frustrated with his lessons that day? In a class of 25-30 students, there is a reasonable chance that there were other students with similar challenges. How many of them refused to try, and yelled inappropriate language at the teacher? If so, were they also removed from the classroom? How many of them who did not act out had their learning derailed while the teacher dealt with the disruption of Jeremiah?

    Perhaps the reason he was not welcome in the classroom was because of his yelling inappropriate language at the teacher, and not because he found the work difficult.

    The anecdote at the end of the article is interesting, referring to the kindergartner who is receiving restorative treatments to help him deal with his history of inappropriate language and behavior. On the one hand it’s great to see a successful approach to keep a student like that in the classroom and learning – and better to intervene at that young age then when behaviors are better ingrained. On the other hand though if these interventions become chronic and come at at the expense of the rest of the class at some point your efforts to keep this student in class and engaged will have a real impact on the rest of the students.

    There could also be approaches to work with the student on their behavioral or coping issues that did not take place in the classroom, which were done before they were returned to that same classroom.

    I would not suggest this is a simple problem to solve, but to overweight the efforts to keep a disruptive student (and yes I am assuming truly disruptive as described above, yelling explitaives at the teacher, not eye rolling) who is derailing their classmates at the expense of the classrooms learning progress is not a panacea for the challenges all these kids face.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/27/2017 - 06:28 pm.

    Actually, kick them out

    As a parent of kids in St. Paul schools having witnessed plenty of disciplinary issues, I am really tired of this nonsense.

    The idea that the suspensions that do not involve violence arise from otherwise benign actions is just false. Kids frequently got removed for bullying. Keeping those kids in class just makes life a living hell for other kids who are there to learn. Protect those kids – don’t enable the bullies.

    And the idea that disruptive kids are simply frustrated with material does not match with reality. My kid spent much of a year in one class with a kid who would tell the teacher “I can do whatever I want and you can’t do s**t about it”. And he was right, because Silva was in charge and was undermining teachers abilities to control their classes. No one learned a thing. 30 kids showed up to learn, and didn’t get to because of this kind of misguided thinking

    You imply that the correlation between suspension and dropping out is also causative, and there is no evidence for that. The kids who are getting suspended multiple times weren’t going to graduate anyway, even if you kept them around to ruin everyone else’s experience.

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/27/2017 - 07:33 pm.

    Analysis

    Let’s analyze this piece in details.

    “(T)oo many students of color in our classrooms are receiving a problematic message: This space is not for you.” Well, if a child yells obscenities at a teacher, maybe that space is not for him or her. Obviously, it starts with a child meaning it actually starts with the parents.

    “In St. Paul Public Schools and Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) combined, black students make up 33 percent of the student population but account for 74 percent of total disciplinary actions. These disparities are inexcusable…” Is that a hint that MPS teachers are racists and want to hurt black students? It is hardly believable. So should we look for other explanations? I am sure that despite females being roughly 50 percent of enrollment, their share of disciplinary actions is much lower than males… What does it mean? Obviously, that males commit many more violations than females… Now we can use the same approach to other statistics…

    “(R)oughly 70 percent of suspensions do not involve violence, and nearly 40 percent of suspensions are for disruptive disturbance… This could merely be eye rolling or refusal to do work.” It could but the first example was not about that…

    “Students who have been suspended once in ninth grade are twice as likely to drop out of high school as students who have not been suspended.” But it doesn’t mean that increase in dropout rate is caused by that single suspension… Maybe students who are prone to suspension are more prone to dropping out…

    “Sending students out of the classroom is also counterproductive.” Maybe for that student but not for the other 24 or 29… Whose interests should be more important?

    “There are alternatives to suspension that have been shown to be more effective at addressing student behavior, keeping students in the classroom, and improving classroom and school climate. In some Minneapolis Public Schools, restorative practices are being used to achieve this.” And who is paying for that? Parents of disruptive students?

    So what to do? I agree that suspension as a punishment actually does what those disruptive kids want – not go to school. So, as an alternative, the school should put them into separate classroom with a police officer present and then make their parents pay for that… Should we try that?

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