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At Legislature, lawmakers debate vastly different approaches to student discipline in Minnesota

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Martha Johnson, a mother and longtime teacher in the St. Paul Public Schools district, says every classroom should have a "breathing ball" for students to use as a self-regulation tool. This was one of many interventions suggested as positive alternatives to a zero-tolerance policy for suspensions.

At Thursday's Senate Education Committee hearing, Sen. Dave Brown, R-Becker, wanted to send a strong message of support to public school teachers who feel unsafe at school, saying any incident of student-on-teacher assault should result in mandatory expulsion.

As stated in his proposed “Teacher Protection Act” school boards would be tasked with determining the length of the expulsion; and — unless the assaulted teacher agrees to allow that student back into their classroom — school officials would have to find an alternative placement for the student as well.

Sen. Dave Brown

“This bill gives our teachers a voice and lets them know the Legislature [thinks] their protection is important,” Brown said.

While many committee members agreed that concerns of teacher safety — which have been heightened by recent news coverage of assaults in St. Paul Public Schools — warrant some refined legislative guidance, few lawmakers were willing to put their weight behind Brown’s zero-tolerance policy.

Even Senator Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, the committee chair and co-author to Brown’s bill, seemed inclined to let it fizzle out in favor of a more comprehensive bill authored by Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul.

In Pappas’ “Student Inclusion and Engagement Act,” suspension would be a last-resort action, only deemed appropriate after alternative disciplinary interventions have been employed, the student’s parents have been notified, and the entire situation has been documented. The proposal also lays out requirements for a suspended student to have the opportunity to make up missed work for full credit, and for school administrators to create a clear re-engagement plan.

“We’re all concerned about disorder in our schools,” Pappas said. “However, outdated discipline practices are pushing too many student outside of the classroom, often for nonviolent behavior.”

Statewide, the number of students expelled from schools is dropping as districts invest more time — and in some cases, more money — into various ways of preventing and mediating problem behaviors, approaches that take a student’s social, emotional and academic needs into consideration. 

But students of color and disability are still disproportionately affected by disciplinary measures. In the 2014-15 school year, 38 percent of discipline cases in Minnesota schools involved black students, even though African-Americans only represent 12 percent of enrollment in the state. 

Those advocating for a more equitable education system often cite the “school-to-prison pipeline” as a grim reality for many of these students. Marginalized youth who are funneled out of public schools, even for non-physical offenses, are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.

Pappas’ proposal is expected to be absorbed into a student discipline workgroup proposed by Senator Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, that would meet over the summer. Based on those discussions, the workgroup would then deliver its recommendations to the 2017 Legislature. 

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
At Thursday's Senate Education Committee Hearing, testifiers support the “Student Inclusion and Engagement Act” presented by Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, (center). Sen. Dave Brown, R-Beker, (back right) proposed the "Teacher Protection Act" prior, with no supporting public testimony.

'Too broad an ax'

Brown says his bill was created in response to phone calls and emails he’d been receiving from teachers who had been assaulted and didn’t feel the situation was taken seriously by administrators. One of these teachers claimed she had been assaulted by a student two years ago and ended up leaving her job while the student stayed in the school.

Yet none of these teachers showed up to testify in support of Brown’s bill. “They were all afraid of reprisals that would come,” Brown told reporters in a press conference following the hearing. “I understand that.”

While Brown’s bill lacked public testimony, Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, spoke out in favor of it. “For too long, we have rationalized and excused students from their actions and I think that’s, in part, one of the reasons we’re seeing the problems we’re seeing today,” he said.

But most committee members felt Brown’s bill was a far cry from what’s needed. “My fear is because of the lack of a case-by-case basis, this is too broad an ax for a much more nuanced problem,” Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said. “I appreciate the intent very much, but I’m afraid for all the reasons that have been discussed that we need to come up with a better solution.”

Kent’s comments were aplified by Martha Johnson, a veteran St. Paul teacher and mother, in her testimony against Brown’s bill. “You would not expect or ask a child in a wheelchair to walk up a flight of stairs and punish them if they couldn’t do it,” she said in her opening remarks.

As the foster parent of a 15-year-old son she refers to as a “prickly porcupine,” she explained that behaviors that are often deemed grounds for suspension are, in fact, involuntary in nature. For instance, she says her son was once suspended for curling up under a table and refusing to come out.

He’s been suspended for similar episodes more times than she can count, she said, noting educators should be turning to things that help students self-regulate or de-escalate situations instead. 

“This bill is a long overdue first step to create system-wide, state-wide solutions,” she said.

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Comments (10)

Breathing ball

What a great idea! When the kids entered the Como Park classroom to confront another student about their drug deal gone bad, the teacher could have just handed them the breathing ball and no one would have been assaulted. Instead of trying to break up the fight at Central, the teacher could have just handed them breathing balls.

Kind of like

…a police officer opening fire with his/her service weapon, an expulsion ought to be a last resort, not a first response. Too often, in both cases, it's the latter instead of the former.

That said, and in response to "breathing balls" and other approaches, I heartily support the use of such devices by people whose professional training provides them with expertise in that area. Most of the time, however, those people will not be teachers, who are not hired to be mental health professionals and counselors. Some of us do our own version of ad hoc counseling when we can, and when it seems appropriate, but the licensing standards in various states rarely, if ever, mention the kinds of emotional de-escalation that a "breathing ball" represents. School districts and parents are primarily interested in a teacher's subject-area expertise. Does Mrs. Jones know her chemistry? Is Mr. Smith a competent writer and speaker, who can teach children by example how to develop and use English language skills? Does Mr. Schoch recognize, when teaching about the American frontier, that what was good for European settlers was disastrous for the native population?

While I might be willing to try something like a "breathing ball" in a one-on-one situation, it's my understanding that Minnesota public schools, like public schools in every other state, do not provide teachers and their students very many opportunities for lengthy, one-on-one interaction. Most of the time, maybe all the time, a teacher has a CLASS, of which petulant Jane or acting-out John are only one member. Even if I wanted to, it's not realistic for either legislators or the public to expect me to magically devise, on the spot, a creative and worthwhile activity for the other 29 kids in the room to engage in for the next 30 minutes while I spend that half hour in a back corner of the room with petulant Jane or acting-out John, helping him/her deal with their current emotional overload.

Wise man

You write with great diplomacy, yet your comment was far more damming than my snarkiness. Well done.

All I would modify in your comment is ....

CLASSES

How is Ms. Johnson example of

How is Ms. Johnson example of her son pertinent to her opposition to Mr. Brown’s bill? His bill calls for expulsion of students physically attacking teachers which was not what her son was doing. The problem is not what her son and others like him are doing but a physical assault on teachers that goes unpunished. How can anyone be against protecting teachers from that? Unfortunately, Ms. Pappas and others like her put political correctness above teachers’ safety.

There is something very wrong

There is something very wrong with the system when teachers, who have been assaulted, are afraid to come to a meeting for fear of reprisals. The Teachers Union run schools for the past 50 years have set back public education more than anybody thought possible, not only for the students but for the teachers and their safety.

Seriously?

If you have paid even the slightest little bit of attention to what is going on you would know its the teachers union that is most upset with what is happening. The non-discipline policy was pushed by the administration over union objections. If anything, its the decline of union influence that has resulted in increased violence. To blame unions for this is completely absurd.

The Teachers Union run the

The Teachers Union run the schools and have for years. If they are so upset they would change it, not find ways to cover to up or shame those who disagree with their policies. If teachers unions don't run the schools please tell me who does? It certainly is not the children, parents or the community because they have been complaining for years about their kids not being prepared for life after 18 and High School.

Nonsense

The issue here - the discipline policy (or more precisely, the non-discipline policy) was imposed by the administration/school board over the objection of the teachers' union. The union can't simply change it because, contrary to your belief, they don't run the schools. It quite literally is not in the union's power to change this. Teachers are getting assaulted and the district is suspending teachers who complain about discipline. The teachers in St. Paul absolutely hate the superintendent and her policies. That is not reflective of union control.

There are areas where you can at least arguably blame unions, but the discipline policy is not one of them. Again, if you had paid even the slightest bit of attention, you would know how absurd that is.

I find it ironic!

In this same issue of MinnPost is Katherine Kersten's article on teaching "culturally relevant pedagogy." Having just read it, she seems to say - people of color just need to buck up and assimilate more rapidly. Really, that attitude will curtail the violence in our urban schools?

I would applaud any support given to teachers in a climate where they are too often criticized. Consider what has happened in Wisconsin to the teaching profession as a result of Governor Walker's constant berating of teachers and their professional unions. Very good teachers are retiring and/or leaving the profession - or at least leaving the state.

I would also ask legislators to make sure they honor the existing local control of school boards in their approach to curbing violence in our schools. As long as school boards stay within the law in these matters they will usually be the best judge of how to handle the issue locally. I hope our legislators recognize and honor the vast difference between urban, suburban, and rural schools in this state.