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On school discipline policy, who’s at the table matters

As a long-time education advocate, I have participated in many conversations on how to rethink discipline practices to make schools more engaging and supportive for students, families, and educators. But as newly released data from the Minnesota Department of Education confirms, such conversations have not been going far enough: Schools are increasingly using failed, exclusionary school discipline practices, with disparities persisting along lines of race and ability.

Marika Pfefferkorn

It is time for a new conversation — one that includes those most negatively impacted by current discipline policies and disparities, and one that results in meaningful action.

Thankfully, our state leaders have a solid starting point. Last year, in response to growing racial disparities and mounting research on the harm caused by exclusionary discipline, Minnesota policymakers decided to call stakeholders to the table to chart a path forward. They appointed a school discipline working group, which I co-chaired, that asked primarily for the input of practitioners and professional associations.

Notably absent were those most directly and disproportionately impacted by school discipline disparities: black students, Native American students, students with disabilities, and by extension, their families and communities.

Expulsions, suspensions do more harm than good

What the group agreed on is that in order to learn, students need to be in school. When we remove students from learning opportunities, often for nonviolent behavior, we are doing everyone a disservice. Suspensions, expulsions, and other removals do more harm than good for students, taxpayers, and the economy alike.

Based on this common ground, we crafted several important policy recommendations that, if adopted, could make a difference. For example, we have asked the Legislature to establish, communicate, and clarify what due process looks like for all student dismissals; to improve school discipline data collection and reporting; and to require that, if a student does not repeat the behavior for one year, their history of physical assault or violent behavior not be reported to future teachers.

But as I presented these and other recommendations to the Legislature earlier this month, I couldn’t help but wonder what we had missed. Had those on the receiving end of exclusionary discipline disparities — namely, black students, Native American students, students with disabilities, and their advocates — been at the table, what else might we have recommended? What would they have fought for that we didn’t see as a priority?

Policymakers must now review our working group’s recommendations and decide which, if any, they will turn into law. They also have an opportunity, one which I sincerely hope they use, to build upon our recommendations.

Because not only did our working group exclude some key voices, but the situation for those excluded has only grown more urgent: In 2015-16, there were 51,667 incidents of suspensions, exclusions, and expulsions across Minnesota’s K-12 public schools, compared to 46,442 in 2014-15, an 11 percent increase in just one year. A whopping 37 percent of these exclusions were for “disruptive/disorderly” behavior — a shockingly vague and subjective category.

Disparities remain

What’s more, disparities along lines of race and ability remain: In 2015-16, students with disabilities made up 14 percent of enrollment and 43 percent of disciplinary actions. For black students, the numbers were 10 percent and 41 percent, respectively. Native American students made up less than 2 percent of the state’s K-12 enrollment, and yet 7 percent of disciplinary actions.

If we’re going to change these stark numbers — which have long-term, negative impacts on our students and communities — we need our state legislators to stay committed to improving school discipline policies. We need them to see our working group’s conversations and resulting recommendations as a starting point, not a conclusion, in our shared work of ensuring that all students have what they need to be successful.

I applaud the Legislature for convening the school discipline working group, and I thank my fellow working group members for their dedication and service. Now it is time for policymakers to review and expand upon our recommendations, set the table for further conversations that prioritize those who are most directly harmed by current policies and yet too often overlooked, and take real action during the 2017 session.

Marika Pfefferkorn is the director of the Minnesota Black Male Achievement Network, co-chair of the statewide Solutions Not Suspensions coalition, and co-chair of the state’s recent legislative working group on school discipline.


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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 02/13/2017 - 08:45 am.

    Expulsions and suspensions do more

    Harm than good to who? How about the 28 students that are trying to learn, is the distraction of 1 or 2 disruptive students better for them? Is it better for the student trying to listen to the teacher but can’t because the person behind him is too loud? Is it better for the class when the teacher can’t finish the daily planner because she is dealing with a problem student? Remind me again how that helps the 95% of the children trying to learn to have a disruptive kid in their class?

    Have a set of rules for everyone no cell phones, no talking while others are talking, stay seated, raise your hand to speak (you know society type rules) and have consequences for repeated violations (you know like rules they will have to live with in the real world, 5 speeding tickets in 2 years your privilege to drive may be revoked) ….. Not that hard people!!

    • Submitted by Michael Friedman on 02/13/2017 - 10:32 am.

      Common fallacy about those 28

      This is a common fallacy — that if a disruptive student is not suspended he/she remains in the classroom disrupting. No advocates for improved discipline practices support allowing interference with the learning environment. The point is that suspension as a default is not evidence-based as a practice that accomplishes its intended aim of improved behavior in the future, and in fact can deny transformative opportunity by the negative impacts of labeling and shame. There are intermediary measures and alternative restorative strategies that evidence shows works better, and which may include (but only if necessary) temporary removal from the classroom. Many educators already know this, and use such practices.

      If suspension fails to induce changed behavior, why does it get advocated for by right wing ideologues? One reason is the general use of a populist propaganda tool to appeal by defaulting nostalgically to the way it used to be, the fear of change. That helps feed the narrative of blaming those who do not ideally benefit by government services for the failure, a cover for advocating against government as a potential force for positive change generally.

      So let’s be rational here. The child suspended for 1 day or 3 will inevitably return to the 28 others in the classroom. Will the suspension have made it less likely the 28 will not have to endure some other distraction? Has the suspension (i.e. in a vacuum) addressed the underlying basis of the behavior so that it will not be repeated? If disability is involved, has the suspension led to a strategy to prevent such disability from giving greater risk to a future distraction?

      If my child was one of the 28, I’d set aside ideology and prefer that future disruptions were minimized; I therefore would prefer my school not lazily rely on misguided presumptions about the effectiveness of suspensions.

      (Here’s a longer version of this point, made 5 years ago in a StarTribune Op-ed:

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/13/2017 - 01:26 pm.

        Fact not fallacy

        Returning disruptive kids to class without consequence is exactly what happened in St. Paul under Silva. That’s why she got fired, and rightfully so.

        My child is one of the 28. And like the parents of those children, I’m not thinking at all about ideology. I’m thinking about wanting my child to learn. About protecting him from bullies. And I am very happy that disruptive and bullying kids are being removed from class. There is only upside from that happening for the 28.

        I’ll grant you that suspending the disrupters and bullies probably isn’t going to fix their behavior. But neither is keeping them in class. I don’t have the answer for that, and maybe there isn’t one.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 02/14/2017 - 07:20 am.

        Michael, are you saying having

        a disruptive kid sitting behind you causing trouble all day, does not effect the person sitting in front of him?? Really?? Do you need a study to figure out that impacts not only one child but every kid in the class… Common sense trumps studies most of the time!!

        • Submitted by Michael Friedman on 02/14/2017 - 09:50 am.


          I have several posts for this article that all clearly do not say this. Disruption should not be tolerated. But stating that the only two choices are disruption (completely ignoring the problem) or suspension (punitive removal from school on future days) is an alternative fact.

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/14/2017 - 12:00 pm.

            Do you have kids?

            Do they go to a city school?

            You keep trying to make this ideological, and it really isn’t. I am a liberal, but I have kids in St. Paul schools and have seen this firsthand. I have spoken with a lot of teachers about this. The pushback to your thinking is coming from the people who work in this environment every day.

  2. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 02/13/2017 - 09:29 am.

    Thanks Joe

    You took the words right out of my mouth.

    Like a lot of “solutions”, everyone is forced to look at themselves except for the instigator. Why is that? All these “policy recommendations” do is serve to enable those causing the problems. Sure, kids should be allowed second chances. But we also need to realize not everyone wants to be saved, nor can the do-gooders ever achieve that goal.

    The Big Question this story raised but never answered….why was the one group noticeably absent? Is it they couldn’t be bothered to attend some meetings that deal with something so unimportant as their kids education?

  3. Submitted by John N. Finn on 02/13/2017 - 09:56 am.

    A link…..

    … the recommendations?

    “Now it is time for policymakers to review and expand upon our recommendations,”

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/13/2017 - 10:25 am.

    For a change…

    …I’m inclined in Joe Smith’s direction.

    Yes, second chances should be almost a given, since children (not to mention some adults) often don’t think about consequences when they act. Further, I’d agree that expulsion simply makes for another resident of one of our correctional institutions at worst, or a lifetime spent in a no-future job, at best, and at far more expense to the society at large than hiring more personnel to deal with problem students. Beyond that, expulsion either teaches nothing, or it teaches a lesson we’d prefer that the child not learn: that behaving badly will get her/him what s/he wants.

    But that gets us to those problem students. Nothing of worthwhile academic value is likely to take place in a group setting where basic rules of decorum are not, or cannot, be followed. When I’m dealing with a kid one-on-one, laughing and joking and being louder than necessary aren’t always fatal to the lesson, and may even help it – but that’s in an individual situation. Teachers rarely get those individual opportunities. In a classroom setting decorum, pretty much as Joe Smith laid it out, has to be Rule #1 if anything of substance is going to be accomplished for the group. To do otherwise, as he suggests, and as was borne out by my own experience over the course of 30 classroom years, does a grave disservice to the other kids in the class, the teacher, and the school.

    If kids haven’t learned math or English or history because their teacher is unprepared, it’s on the teacher. If kids haven’t learned math or English or history because one or two kids in the room were never taught by their parents or guardians to sit still and pay attention, raise their hand when they want to be called upon, and keep their hands off their classmates, the fault is mostly with those parents or guardians. Every teacher I’ve ever known makes an effort to steer their kids in the direction of decorum, but in an hour a day in high school, or 30 hours a week in elementary school, there’s a finite limit to what a teacher can do along those lines. Too much of the child’s world is outside of school to reasonably hold a teacher responsible for what happens in those out-of-school hours.

    It’s still a thorny issue, despite Joe’s previous disclaimers, because plenty of kids have never learned those lessons, and tossing them out onto the street does neither them nor the rest of us any good in the long run. I’m fine with attempts and programs whose goal is to make school discipline as fair and equitable as is humanly possible. That said, however, the rights of the group should outweigh the rights of the individual in many, if not most, of these kinds of cases. A kid who can’t or won’t sit still, or can’t or won’t follow the basic rules of decorum, is telling everyone within sight and earshot that her/his needs are more important than the needs of the others in the room.

    No classroom, no school, no society, can successfully operate on that basis. In this society, individual rights are very important, as our laws and Constitution make plain, indeed, but eventually, the right of every individual to do what s/he darn well pleases runs up against the right(s) of the others in the room or community, and the rights of others are just as valid as the rights of a particular individual.

    I’ll add that the number suggest a relative few are creating problems for the many. I agree that those few should be represented at the table when these issues are discussed, but at the same time, if certain groups (e.g., black males) are disproportionately represented among those being punished, is seems at least plausible that the primary reason for that disproportionate representation is a disproportionate amount of disruptive behavior among black males. If teachers are tossing black males out of class for behavior that gets no such response when that same behavior is practiced by other kids, we’re clearly dealing with discrimination, and that discrimination ought to be stopped. If, however, the black kid is being tossed for behavior that her/his classmates of other ethnic or racial or gender persuasion don’t engage in, then it seems fair—to me, at least—to correct the behavior that’s provoking the teacher’s (and the school’s) reaction. My experience was that in most instances, other kids of color in class disliked disruptive behavior just as much as the teacher, and for similar reasons.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/13/2017 - 10:48 am.


      I have had long conversations with my son (who is white) about the discipline at Ramsey and Central in St. Paul. Specifically, as to whether African-American kids were punished differently from white kids. He said that in his classes, the answer is no. The kids sent out of class were almost entirely African-American, as were the kids who were disruptive. I realize that is one (white) person’s experience and if there was evidence that African-American kids were being singled out, that needs to stop.

      What you can’t do is stop disciplining children where discipline is needed just because the numbers are skewed. When St. Paul tried that, it was a disaster. My son would tell me about a kids who would disrupt class every day. On his way to the office, the kid would say “I can do what I want and you can’t do shit about it”. And he was right – the kid would be returned to class and resume his disruption. The only meaningful class time for the other 30 kids was when this kid was gone.

  5. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/13/2017 - 10:36 am.


    As a parent of kids in St. Paul public schools, I have seen firsthand the damage that misguided discipline policies can do. I don’t agree that suspensions and expulsions do more harm than good. Students learn much better without chronically disruptive kids in class, while failing to discipline those students just reinforces the problem.

    • Submitted by Michael Friedman on 02/13/2017 - 11:42 am.


      Just because you believe that suspensions accomplish some good doesn’t make it so. Evidence to support such a proposition is lacking.

      Failure to Intervene does perpetuate the problem. But discipline that defaults to removal on future days (i.e. Suspension) reinforces the problem because it makes zero effort towards fixing it — all to the detriment of your perfectly behaving children. To my knowledge, SPPS has recently changed its approach and taken on restorative practices so that there’s no longer an unhelpful either/or.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/13/2017 - 01:09 pm.


        I have seen it firsthand in my son’s classroom. And most teachers will tell you the same thing. Removing chronically disruptive kids enables kids to actually get something out of class. There is no detriment to well-behaving kids – what would the detriment be? On the contrary, since the disruptive behavior often involves bullying of other students, suspensions were a godsend to those other kids.

        What you saw under Silva in St. Paul was the disempowerment of teachers. And the lesson learned was that bad behavior was unpunished. That bullies has free reign. That’s why Silva got fired. Unfortunately the bad behavior escalated to serious violence before that change was made.

        • Submitted by Michael Friedman on 02/13/2017 - 01:51 pm.

          You missed the point

          Suspensions lead to you using the word “chronically”. That’s the problem.

          If you have an alternative that works to transform, the problem is not chronic. See for instance, the data of the Minnesota study (at which shows that even children for whom expulsion is an option can greatly transform with an effective intervention. (The data shows great results in the year AFTER the intervention as well, demonstrating the long-term benefit.) Those youth learned a lesson because they participated in understanding the harm caused and were supported at strategies for change; no such lesson would have occurred through expulsion or suspension.

          And I already stated that intervention is a good thing, perhaps even temporary removal from the classroom. Bullying should be stopped. But does denial of the right to go to school the next day (suspension) create the change sought? Give this author credit for trying to achieve practices that are good for all; no one wants to ignore problems for the children affected, directly or indirectly.

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/14/2017 - 11:56 am.

            Again, nonsense

            It’s not the suspensions that are chronic, it’s the behavior. And yes, keeping those kids out of class is 100 percent effective for the 28 kids who are there to learn and do not want to be bullied. It may not work for the bullies and disruptive kids, but neither does returning them to class without real consequences. All that does is reinforce their bad behavior.

            You say you want to stop bullying, but you refuse to do what it takes. I’m worried about the 28 other kids. You are empowering the bullies.

            This is why the teachers rose up, cleaned out the school board and fired Silva. The kind of nonsense you are peddling was putting students and teachers in real danger. When the teacher got assaulted by a student at Central (suffering life-altering injuries) the student’s parents claimed he was a good kid (which was not true) and the assault (which was caught on video) was all lies. How do you overcome that kind of parenting? I don’t know, but it sure isn’t putting teachers and students who want to learn in danger.

  6. Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 02/13/2017 - 12:38 pm.

    When I was in school in the 50’s and 60’s we didn’t expelled. We were assigned after schools and if it was bad enough we went to juvenile court and the judge had working on the weekends, maybe washing fire trucks, cutting the grass the parks, you name it and you only had to be sent to washing firetrucks once and you learned your lesson, the fireman had no mercy. Not only that but you had to go home and tell your parents.

  7. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/13/2017 - 03:25 pm.

    Proportional punishment

    If three students do identical disruptions, is their punishment the same? If a student continues to be disruptive, does the severity of punishment increase from light to heavy? Do parents have a clear understanding of what their student did to provoke a response, or is their reaction colored by every parent’s tendency to think the best of their children? What is the difference between a disruption with a minor impact and one that puts teachers and student at risk of physical or emotional harm (note – bullying that involved threats without actual violences provokes kid to fight back or be scarred – to the point of suicide)? And at what point, should be police be involved?

    There is ot doubt that some teachers are vocal racists. They have no place in the classroom. When one group experiences disproportionate punishment, data can be used to suggest that the teacher might be the problem. Likewise, some teachers are conflict avoidant and don’t enforce the rules, which empowers bad behavior. If there is systematic over or under enforcement of the rules, both situations need to be remedied.

    I think what these kinds of groups need are people without strong preconceptions – who are open to looking objectively and in detail at what is happening, asking lots of questions and not having a predetermined list of tactics before understanding what needs to be done. That suggests representatives who are not teachers or admininistrated, not parents or community actitivist, but people who are experts at win-win peaceful solutions – clergy, judges, psychologists and researchers are examples. Sort of like a jury of citizens, with those with expertise not excluded.

    If this degenerates into a win-lose situation with two sides fighting for their way, that really is not a lot different from the school discipline issue that created a need for a balanced solution that people will work with. As long as punishments are consistent and proportionate to what happened, and students who are discplined get help with underlying issue, maybe effective solutions can be found.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/13/2017 - 09:46 pm.


    “In 2015-16, students with disabilities made up 14 percent of enrollment and 43 percent of disciplinary actions. For black students, the numbers were 10 percent and 41 percent, respectively. Native American students made up less than 2 percent of the state’s K-12 enrollment, and yet 7 percent of disciplinary actions.“ OK, we got it. But I am sure that despite females being roughly 50 percent of enrollment, their share of disciplinary actions is much lower… What does it mean? Obviously, that males commit many more violations than females… Now we can use the same logic to other statistics…

    So what to do? I agree that suspension is 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?

  9. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/14/2017 - 06:36 pm.

    Could it be?

    We really haven’t come very far since I was a kid in the 50’s, and as one poster keeps saying, can we start looking or thinking about other things? Example, how do we compare to say Singapore, what is different there than here, what do their expulsion rates etc. look like. What was the Einstein quote: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results!” If you don’t change the variable in an algebraic equation, you keep getting the same results. Suspect that is what the author of the article was trying to drive at, the magical question, what do you change the variable to? and then, it probably won’t work equally well for all situations. if the only tool in your tool box is a hammer, all your problems will look like nails.

  10. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 02/20/2017 - 08:13 am.

    I’m/ too far away from the issue but…

    it was a different time but sometime in the early fifties, and I suppose
    ‘ troublemaker’ is a term. seems acceptable; then and now?

    My parents had moved to Mpls from the prairies for father’s health reasons and retirement…and three of us still in college so to keep busy they drove from Linden Hills to run a small neighborhood grocery in North Minneapolis next to what someone warned them “was the roughest school in the city.” Attitudes started way back then, add that to this narrative?

    A problem’ began with kids smoking in front of the store…after all it was off- the junior high campus…but a game began…who can toss their butts highest and a few landed on the canopy. A few lit up the canopy but fizzed out…

    Solution? Well Mom solved it by figuring which one kid had “leadership” quality and called him over one day…asked if he could help them out for a reasonable fee, like sweep the sidewalk in front of the store after school. Worked …sweet as honey

    Funny what a little recognition when a kid is young will do, even in these times if one sees the other when young – different times – but somehow if ignored too long they act out to gain recognition among their peers.

    Simple story but whatever the issue someone missed giving the child recognition and consider today, buried in this mad world, so many want to be recognized not labeled since every problem problem begins so early and if we don’t want Trumpism being the format of our future leaders – somebody missed him long ago- ?

    Recognition early on does affect anyone’s future success in the world and even in simplistic solutions and another time do, may have a be one basic suggestion? We need to recognize the core issue, or one of them and start by recognizing ‘the other’ which is ‘us’,essentially.?

    Labels simplify but start with a clean slate in the mind and one-on-one and maybe we can find ourselves in them and try, try again…don’t condemn initially…but then what do I know but it’s a slow and forget; just a thought on the day of the Spring rain eh?

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