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Labeling K-12 students as criminals won’t protect teachers’ safety

Minnesota teachers believe positive behavior reinforcement and restorative practices are the most effective approaches to school discipline, greatly preferring them to punitive and exclusionary measures.

teacher's desk
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Legislators at the Minnesota Capitol are embarking on a special session starting today to pass an omnibus bill aimed to address a variety of our state’s most critical education issues. There are prospective measures to make school funding more equitable, to increase teacher diversity, and to incorporate restorative discipline practices that help students learn how to express their emotions in a healthy way. These, and many other measures, if adopted, will enable our schools and teachers to better meet students’ needs. Unfortunately, not all of the proposals for inclusion in this year’s education omnibus bill meet these criteria. One has the potential to deepen the already stark discipline disparities that Black, brown, and Indigenous students face each day in our classrooms and must be defeated.

As we speak, legislators are considering provisions that could lead students to be unfairly and permanently labeled as “violent” or “disruptive” and lead to increased use of exclusionary discipline in our schools. While these changes are being framed as a way to “protect” educators, a recent survey of Minnesota teachers shows that doubling down on punitive, exclusionary discipline is misguided. Minnesota teachers believe positive behavior reinforcement and restorative practices are the most effective approaches to school discipline, greatly preferring them to punitive and exclusionary measures, such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.

In addition to educators’ desire to move away from a punitive, exclusionary approach to discipline, there are very real risks to students. Perennially labeling students with known cases of violent behavior is both unnecessary and likely to increase racial discipline disparities and socio-emotional problems among our public school students. Without defining exactly what accounts for “violent” behavior, proponents of this policy argue that students who have documented cases of violent behaviors should be labeled as such in their files and that every year, their soon-to-be teachers must receive this information in advance, so that they can be “prepared” to protect themselves from these students.

As a former public school teacher, I appreciate our legislators’ intentions to keep teachers safe. With that said, I also know that writing something like this into state law is not needed and it will cause unmeasurable harm to students whose school records and reputations would forever be tarnished by a designation of “violent.” My experience as a teacher and as a parent to a child with special needs has taught me that disruptive behaviors observed in classrooms are rarely rooted in violence. In fact, many of these children are reacting with anger to situations because on the spectrum of emotions, being angry is easier than being sad or embarrassed by the fact that they are struggling in class and don’t want others to know. Our students do not need more punishment at school. They need socio-emotional services and supports that help them cope with trauma and successfully adjust to school settings.

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Such a policy is also unnecessary because without the proposed labeling mandate, most, if not all, school districts and their teachers go through a classification process at the end of the school year to build classroom lists for the upcoming year in a balanced way. This process incorporates academic performance, special needs, and a rubric for demonstrated behavior that year. In addition to that, at the beginning of the next school year, it’s common practice for teachers to discuss any concerns about a current student with their former teacher in order to get advice to help the student to be successful. The idea that the lack of an official label on a student’s file would prevent teachers from knowing details about their new students is inaccurate.

Paula Cole
Paula Cole

And finally, we must recognize how such labels could reinforce the school-to-prison pipeline in our state that educators have worked so diligently in recent years to begin dismantling. Criminalizing students for an undefined list of “violent” behaviors has the potential to create self-fulfilling prophecies for students, and negatively influence teachers toward children that they haven’t even met yet. Minnesota is already home to the worst academic achievement gaps in the nation for Black, brown, and Indigenous students, and racial discipline disparities are not far behind. The time is now to focus on restorative discipline practices and investing in socio-emotional learning support in our schools to ensure that all students can be successful at school. The proposed policy to punitively label students would be a dangerous step in the wrong direction.

Paula Cole is the executive director of Educators for Excellence-Minnesota, a teacher-led nonprofit with approximately 2,000 members.


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