Legislative student-discipline task force finds common ground, but comes up short on some key tasks

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Mark French and Marika Pfefferkorn, co-chairs of the legislative task force on student discipline, presenting the group's recommendations before the Senate education policy committee on Thursday.

As St. Paul Public Schools officials work on repairing trust among students, educators, Student Resource Officers and community members — after a tumultuous year of leadership changes, and violent incidents in schools — potential discipline policy changes at the state level could hold implications for students in the capital city and beyond.

Largely prompted by the state of affairs in the St. Paul district, lawmakers felt the need to re-evaluate the substance, application and effect of the state’s Pupil Fair Dismissal Act and related disciplinary provisions. The debate over how to best handle disciplinary measures that remove students from the classroom brought forth a spectrum of bills last session, ranging from zero-tolerance policies to those that put a premium on investigating students’ intent and addressing any underlying issues as a first course of action.

Short on time, lawmakers decided to form a task force to delve deeper into student discipline data — specifically, to study things like which student subgroups are disproportionately removed from the classroom — hash out their different opinions, and offer some recommendations that could gain more bipartisan support this year.

On Thursday, members of the student discipline task force presented their recommendations to the Senate education policy committee. As outlined in the report, they were able to find common ground on a number of strategies like the need to invest in more student support staff. But they came short on a couple of key tasks, namely on defining “willful” — a subjective measure that disproportionality impacts certain student subgroups, who are sent out of class for things like “willful defiance.”

A lack of representation?

According to state disciplinary data for the 2015-16 school year that was released the same day, roughly 37 percent of exclusionary disciplines — those that include suspensions, exclusions and expulsions — were categorized as “disruptive/disorderly.” And those percentages can vary drastically from district to district. For instance, in St. Paul, nearly 47 percent of disciplinary actions fell under this category. In the Minneapolis Public Schools district, however, only 25 percent of incidents were categorized this way.

The fact that black, Hispanic and Native American students — boys, in particular — are disproportionately affected by these subjective exclusionary behavior practices makes it an equity issue in need of some corrective action.

In the opinion of some who sat on the 23-member task force, including Marika Pfefferkorn, who served as a co-chair of the task force representing Minnesota Education Equity Partnership, the group lacked a real sense of urgency when it came to having these tough conversations.

“People were uncomfortable using particular words. So it felt like people were more interested in talking about the process and disagreeing about definitions and terminology versus really putting our heads together to find some very important solutions,” she said. “I’ve already heard from community members about their disappointment — that this report doesn’t show anything new. It’s status quo.”

Felt isolated on panel

As a woman of color, she says she felt very isolated and was disappointed by the sense of compliance she felt dominated most discussions. Offering an example, she said when they were compiling a belief statement, someone pushed back on the notion that racial disproportionalities in discipline should be eliminated, suggesting “eliminated” may be too ambitious of a goal.

Kenneth Eban, with Students for Education Reform Minnesota, says that had those most impacted by unfair disciplinary policies been given greater representation on the task force, the conversation likely would have gone much differently. His organization unsuccessfully sought a seat on the task force, which was dominated by liaisons from educator associations representing principals, schools boards, unions and more. The group largely lacked representation from communities of color, parents and students.  

“If there are more communities of color represented on that committee, you can’t have a discussion on whether or not you should eliminate racial disparities,” Eban said. “Like you can’t say to parents of color or students of color: ‘You’re always going to be viewed as less than. You’re always going to be at a disadvantage.’”

Madaline Edison, executive director of Educators for Excellence in Minnesota, shared Eban and Pfefferkorn’s concerns about the composition of the task force. “From what I’ve heard from the teacher who served on this committee, many of the conversations about suspensions did not directly address race or implicit bias that teachers might bring to decisions about suspensions or disproportionality in suspension rates, particularly for subjective offenses,” she said. “I think the makeup of the committee contributed to that. It’s been mostly folks who are around the table in a lot of these conversations — the associations — who generally get people appointed.”

Lupe Thornhill, 17, the sole student voice on the task force, says she felt like “more of a token than anything,” even though she stepped up to serve as one of three co-chairs. The former Central High School student, who’s now enrolled at the High School for Recording Arts, says she was only able to attend a couple of the meetings because they took place at the Minnesota Department of Education during school hours. And her requests to solicit more student input at a time that would be more accessible for students, she says, were largely shut down.

For her, disproportionalities in student discipline are extremely personal. At one point, she found herself crying during a meeting while sharing a personal example, she says, of how the historical trauma she deals with as a Native American student navigating a white school system has put her at odds with teachers in the past.

“It’s actually extremely intimidating, to be in a room and talking about something so important,” she said, adding despite her best efforts to ground discussion in student experience, she felt her input was widely disregarded.

Some common ground

The other co-chair of the group — Mark French, president of the Minnesota Elementary School Principal’s Association — acknowledged the task force could have been more inclusive. But given the parameters set by lawmakers, he felt they were still quite effective; and, had they been given more time, could have fleshed out some of the more nuanced charges like developing consensus around a definition for “willful.”

“Some of the issues — probably a majority of the issues — the working group members had direct experience and knowledge with,” he said. “So I think the working group was effective and was able to discuss the charges and make the recommendation effectively.”

He maintained that racial disparities in disciplinary data was a thread that ran throughout all of the group’s meetings and conversations, which totaled 25 hours over the course of six months.

Scott Staska, representing the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, also said there were “some fair concerns about the makeup of the group,” but similarly felt that, after a slow start, the group had become fairly effective.

Nine recommendations

In total, the group come up with nine recommendations for the Minnesota Legislature, along with a few additional recommendations for the state Department of Education (MDE) and school districts. These suggestions ranged from improving data collection on disciplinary actions and SRO-student interactions to funding an unspecified pilot project to “reduce racial disproportionality in student discipline that will be coordinated by MDE with involvement by the impacted communities.”

Drawing attention to one of the more nuanced recommendations she felt the group did reach consensus on, Pfefferkorn explained the group recommends students who’ve gotten in trouble for being violent in the past deserve a second chance. More specifically, after one year of no additional reported incidents, they deserve a clean slate with future teachers, rather than having their behavior record follow them all the way through their entire school career.

“We believe in second chances. And we believe that people can change,” she said. “We don’t want to set them up. That’s like a direct correlation to a school-to-prison pipeline.”

While there seemed to be some disagreement over how to best reconcile the need to ensure teachers are empowered to create a safe learning environment with the need to ensure all students — including those who have historically been subjected to more discretionary discipline measures — are given equitable access to an education, the task force found widespread agreement on the need to invest more in preventative measures.

“We believe that there should be fewer removals, dismissals, suspensions, expulsions,” French said. “We believe that if more resources, personnel, time, effort, energy, culture, is created and put upfront, then there will be fewer disciplinary actions on the back end.”

Support staff issue

That would require the state to invest more in student support staff —  a category of historically underfunded positions that includes school counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses, chemical health counselors, behavior support specialists and mental health professionals.

Last year, lawmakers allocated $12 million in matching state grants to help address this shortage. But it didn’t go far, considering Minnesota has one of the worst student-to-counselor ratios in the nation.

As state Legislators mull over the task force’s recommendations in the weeks ahead, it seems likely that they’ll be debating over a number of opposing bills yet again. Without any solid guidance on how to gauge a student’s intent during a behavior incident — and how extreme the consequences should be, based upon that perceived intent — not much has been resolved at this point.

One of the few legislators to comment on the recommendations on Thursday, Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, identified this unfinished task as a main priority, moving forward.

“I think one of the challenges for us [is] we have to define the word ‘willful’ to make it implementantable. I think getting rid of the word ‘willful’ gets into a lot of due process rights, specifically when you look at suspensions,” he said. “If somebody’s bringing a bill and we don’t really, truly see that ‘willful intent’ is going to have to be something that’s implementable, then we’re going to have some problems, systemically, in the state of Minnesota. So I would hope that nobody tries to scratch that language and create a two- or three-tiered system approach. I think we need to come out and define it.”

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/06/2017 - 11:06 am.

    A thorny issue

    This is a thorny issue with no easy solution.

    The only discipline that REALLY works is self-discipline, something that adolescents sometimes have in short supply, and that younger children are still in the process of learning. That said, however, self-control, which is at the heart of discipline in and out of the classroom, is something that typically is learned at home, and it seems to me unrealistic to expect an elementary teacher to simultaneously teach concepts, skills and ideas to a roomful of 2nd-graders as well as provide the individual attention that Johnny or Janey need in order to begin to get their behavior, especially when it’s disruptive, under control. It strikes me as a task that approaches the genuinely impossible, though I’ve seen some really good elementary teachers (my personal educational heroes) who’ve managed to do so at least some of the time.

    Expecting a high school teacher to teach self-discipline to a kid who, at, say, age 15, hasn’t already learned it, strikes me as even more unrealistic, given that most high school teachers see a particular child only an hour a day, and usually somewhat less than that. I once had a mother tell me she “couldn’t do a thing” with her 15-year-old son, with the clear implication that somehow I should assume the role of surrogate parent at a level of intensity nowhere specified in any teacher’s contract. I did what I could, within the framework of that particular child and class and subject matter, but other parents and my building and district administrators certainly had their own expectations of what a semester in Mr. Schoch’s class ought to involve in terms of instructional outcomes as well as human ones, and I couldn’t ignore the former in order to produce positive outcomes in the latter and still keep my job.

    Blessed with an authoritative-sounding voice and a 6-foot frame, I had few discipline problems over the course of a 30-year classroom career in an increasingly-diverse high school. I attribute some of that to sheer good luck, and some of it to my habit of paying close attention to my audience. I worked diligently at not letting small problems slide until they become medium or large-sized ones. I asked kids who were snippy if they were having a bad day, and if they were, I didn’t mind tip-toeing around that when I could do so. I should add that, at least at my school, and with a few exceptions, we regarded as generally unprofessional the passing on to colleagues of detailed information about a student we’d had in class. With rare exceptions for physical handicaps (I taught history to a 16-year-old who was totally blind, for example) I almost never knew anything about a student in advance of that first day of the new semester, so every kid DID start “with a clean slate” as far as I was concerned.

    The only student I ever sent to the principal’s office for disciplinary reasons over the course of 30 years was a normally-polite 17-year-old girl who dropped a very loud F-bomb on the boy sitting behind her when he provoked her about a recent breakup with her boyfriend. I totally understood where she was coming from, and told her so when I met with her and the principal after class, but I also made it plain to her that I simply couldn’t allow her to use that language in a public situation like that. She, in turn, understood my position, and was back in class the next day with no hard feelings on either her part or mine.

    I’ve been out of the classroom for a long time now, and I’m not at all sure my usual approach to discipline would still be effective, but I’m still inclined to think that hardened positions tend to turn the issue into something more complicated than it needs to be. The “golden rule” still seems to me a useful one, and I tried to approach kids with that in mind, rather than falling back on an authoritarian model that seemed ineffective to me, both then and now.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 02/06/2017 - 04:32 pm.

      Ray, parenting 101 is setting boundaries,

      again , not that difficult. Children want boundaries and study after study says they do better when they understand what is acceptable and what is not… Typical in today’s world to take a subject like acceptable behavior in a class room and turn it into a confusing “thorny” discussion.

      • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/07/2017 - 08:10 am.

        Easy peasy

        Most of the time, I’d agree that it’s “not that difficult,” and OF COURSE setting boundaries is at the core of the issue. Establishing boundaries is at the core of civilization itself.

        Where will you set those boundaries, and what consequences will there be for stepping over them?

        Those are the more difficult questions that require something more than a knee-jerk response. I’ll add that, if boundaries matter, close attention is required. Successful teachers know that they have to be relentless in applying whatever classroom rules they’ve established, and I did my best to adhere to that standard. I didn’t have a lot of rules, either as teacher or parent, but I was vigilant about making sure the rules I did have were followed.

        When they weren’t, it made sense to me to have the consequence fit the violation and the person. To do otherwise (“If you do ‘x,’ then ‘y’ will happen, no matter what.”) is to adopt the same sort of “one size fits all” approach that many on the political right routinely attach in disparagement to those ideas and programs they choose to label as “liberal.”

        • Submitted by joe smith on 02/07/2017 - 06:39 pm.

          One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to

          healthcare (my needs are different than a 25 year old) but one size fits all when a child disrupts a class hurting the education of 95% of the class. There has to be consequences for disruptive behavior. It is not fair to the well behaved children to be distracted from learning by 1 or 2 individuals, no matter how much you want to make excuses for them, it is wrong.

  2. Submitted by Barbara Gilbertson on 02/06/2017 - 11:11 am.

    One student on the task force?

    Really? REALLY??

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 02/06/2017 - 11:38 am.

    How is this thorny??

    Put a set of rules that students need to follow, if the student breaks the rules give them a punishment. Not really that “thorny” . When has it become ok for 1 or 2 disruptive kids to have a negative affect on the other 28 kids trying to learn. Is that fair?

    Not sure what to make of black, Hispanic and Native American being punished more. Either those groups of kids are causing more trouble in the classroom or the teachers are picking on minorities. Which one is it?? Can’t have it both ways with liberals saying public schools are great environments for learning (so we should be against charter/private schools) or public schools have racist teachers picking on minorities.

    Set rules that allow children to achieve their potential and stick with them…. Not that hard, it is called parenting 101.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/06/2017 - 02:09 pm.

      Thanks

      …for providing an example of the authoritarian mode that works great with some kids – and doesn’t work at all for many others.

      I can do “drill sergeant authoritarian” if I need to, but I rarely needed to. Even kids with (what I found out later were) “bad” reputations generally created no discipline issues in my classes. It helped, I’m sure, that I was regarded by many as a “tough” teacher, so my hunch is that plenty of slackers found ways to game the system so they could stay out of my classes altogether and get someone else at the front of the room who was easier to pass. My high school had enough enrollment and staff that that could be done without too much trouble.

      My take, as I implied, if not stating it directly, is that much of the difficulty comes from families where “Parenting 101” has never been part of the family subculture. We tend to repeat as parents whatever means of reward and punishment we were dealt as children – unless we make a long-term and conscious effort to change the pattern. To do that, you have to have a better, or at least a different, model to follow. Many a family that I dealt with as a teacher—black, white, brown, it didn’t seem to make much difference—came from a background of parental neglect on the one hand, or something I tend to think of as child abuse on the other hand. When I got a kid in class who had very little self-discipline, it usually took only one meeting with the parents to figure out where that lack of self-discipline came from.

      I had neither the time, the energy, the desire, or—most important—the legal authority, to become a parent for each of the many children of every race, ability level and ethnicity who showed up in my classroom from families where parents were, sometimes “only” emotionally absent, and sometimes absent in every sense of the word. Tossing such a child out because s/he doesn’t know how to control behavioral tendencies and actions solves nothing, and it condemns you and me both to paying what is probably now about $30K annually for his/her upkeep in a state correctional institution that I’d just as soon not see expanded. Keeping them in a class where they’re disruptive does them no good, and—more important from my perspective as a teacher—it cheats the other kids, and their teacher, out of opportunities for productive and enlightening interaction, which is the whole point of the exercise we call “school.”

      I found that—if I wanted to raise a pleasant, civil, productive citizen of the society—parenting 101 WAS hard. I can only guess, but my guess is that it’s quite a bit harder, even for people with the desire to do it right, when the resources available to the family are a small fraction of what was available to me as a child, and what I, a public school teacher of very modest means, indeed, was able to provide as a parent for my own child. The statistics have been consistent for the past 60 years and more: there’s a high correlation between family affluence and academic achievement. Affluent parents make for affluent schools, with well-behaved children who’ve already learned many of the rules, and had far broader cultural experiences, before they ever get to school. Poverty has multiple downsides, not least of which is that it kills intellectual inquiry more often than not, and poor families—feel free to check on this—generally have children with significantly lower academic achievement. My personal take on that is that it’s not just coincidental.

      To REALLY address the problem would require that society adopt multiple programs and methods to address the issue of poverty. I won’t hold my breath waiting for a billionaire huckster and a Congress dominated by millionaires to do something about that at the federal level, and as long as the current version of the Republican Party in Minnesota remains as short-sighted and tax-fixated as it seems to be at present, I won’t expect any significant action from the state legislature, either. The best educational idea to come down a Minnesota highway in the several years I’ve been here has been Mark Dayton’s desire to see “universal” preschool, which would have, I believe, huge benefits if we practiced it for at least a generation. There’s plenty of research in the past few years showing rather conclusively that taxpayers get much more bang for their tax dollar from educational expenditures made early than they do from similar expenditures made 8 or 10 years later. I note that the cost of universal preschool for kids in Minnesota, always an issue, continues to be something that legislators want to fixate on. It seems to me that, compared to the cost of a bloated and expanding correctional system, preschool for every child is a tremendous bargain.

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/06/2017 - 12:55 pm.

    Discipline

    Students for Education Reform and Educators for Excellence are right-wing AstroTurf groups with nothing to contribute to this issue. If they were excluded, that’s good news.

    As a parent of students at St. Paul Public Schools with discipline issues, I am pretty clued in to what’s going on. And what I hear from the kids (and my teacher friends) is that there are a small percentage of kids who constantly disrupt class and need to be removed. Unfortunately, most of those kids are African-American. SPPS made an effort for awhile to stop the reduce the suspensions, and the result was that the message was sent that bad behavior would not be punished. So the behavior got worse and no one got anything out of class. And in some instances, it escalated into violence. My child was in the Central lunchroom when the teacher got choked. It had to stop. And that’s a big reason why Silva is gone.

    I am not happy about the fact that suspensions are disproportionately given to African-American kids. It is a school to prison pipeline. The solution to that isn’t not suspending kids who need to be suspended, because that fixes nothing and hurts the majority of kids who behave. Keeping those kids in class and letting them create chaos isn’t going to keep them out of prison. You have to get at the behavior, not the punishment if you are going to fix this.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/06/2017 - 01:28 pm.

    Understanding the issue

    Where are the data on level of reported incidents by school, year and also how they were handled? How many are single issue occurrences versus incidents involving multiple episodes? How many go beyond bad words or a bad attitude toward violence? How does the tool belt of consequences vary by school? How much variation is the rates of minority student effense per student per year? Are there times of the school day, days of the week or months of the year these incidence are more common or more severe, which assuming there is a severity index.

    The goal should be to reduce frequency, intensity and disparities in enforcement and punishment. If a small number of students are the issue, they deserve special attention, as if the schools badly manage or don’t curb their behavior, they are negative role models to other students who might not act out otherwise.

    Also, there is an obvious connection between this issue and two other issues – bullying and ineffective classroom management. When a student is being bullied by another student or far worse a teacher, they can withdraw sometimes to the point or skipping school or self harm or react. Generally the second punch is more clearly seen than the first. Some teachers are simply more effective in classroom management, which I am betting have fewer problems. If some teachers have a high range of classroom issues, it may be the composition of their class or that their classroom skills are underdeveloped,

    This discussion points out how easy it is to get caught up in words and theories, but critical to view this as a highly nuananced situation that is shaped by many things than might not be immediately evident. These include how classrooms are run, classroom size, a culture of acceptance of bullying and sadly bigoted attitudes present among adults.

    Without data turned into insight, there is no clear understanding of the problem or whether it is being effectively addressed.

    Ultimately different objectives, such as increasing academic performance and graduation rates and a decline in incarceration rates of former students by age 25 are the most important outcomes of making needed changes.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/06/2017 - 02:24 pm.

      Bad kids

      Under Silva, the schools did badly manage the small number of disruptive kids. Teachers were disempowered to manage those kids by the administration in its attempt to reduce suspensions. Bullying and disruptive behavior flourished and the negative role models were not curbed. Some teachers are going to be better than others at managing classrooms, but no one can do it when undermined by the administration. Silva is gone because the teachers (and parents) revolted.

      Read this story with quotes from the mother of the kid who choked the teacher at Central. He didn’t realize it was a teacher he was choking, so that makes it ok? This is a bad kid, and maybe it’s because of his bad parent, but the fact remains is that he is a danger to others. The teacher sustained life-altering injuries.

      https://www.google.com/amp/www.twincities.com/2015/12/09/st-paul-central-high-mother-says-son-didnt-realize-it-was-a-teacher-2/amp/?client=safari

  6. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 02/06/2017 - 03:11 pm.

    And who is it exactly that is opposed to improved prevention?

    “Prevention” is one of those fallback terms (“Community Policing” is another) that everyone can be in favor of without knowing exactly what it means because it seems to solve or improve upon a problem and thereby avoids difficult conversation about finding new practices and willingly changing. If there’s benefit, it’s only marginal.

    So, yes, I applaud the idea for better prevention. But that’s not enough.

    Yes, it’s good to have more support staff. But throwing psychologists and social workers into it gives primacy to therapeutic solutions in a vacuum, and ignores both the limits of such practices and the perpetuated power dynamics implicit within therapist/student-family (which parallels some of the complained about dynamics from families of color about relationships with schools).

    I applaud MnEEP for seeking more. The Minnesota study linked at this page provides a needed strategy that not just prevents, but prevents in the context of intervening after a high-stakes problem. Moreover, students, and families are not the passive subjects of help; they are key to the problem-solving — a different and better dynamic.
    http://www.cehd.umn.edu/SSW/RJP/Resources/Public-Schools/default.html

  7. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 02/06/2017 - 03:53 pm.

    Student Discipline

    I totally agree that the root problem starts at home, in many cases due to parents who have no clue on how to raise their kids. The problem is exasperated by the absence of fathers in many of these homes.

    One thing that I found striking when we had our son was that we were offered a full range of classes about child birth, but there was absolutely no training for parenting after the child was born. This would be the # 1 place to start.

    Secondly, when you have a discipline problem with a student, we should also consider disciplining the parents in addition to the student. This could range from mandatory parenting classes to financial consequences for those parents who refuse to help get their kids under control.

    The last thing we should do is expell or suspend students, as that is a vacation which acts like a reward for bad behavior. Not that disruptive students shouldn’t be removed from the classroom. Maybe we need boot camp type boarding schools for those kids who can’t be dealt with in any other way.

  8. Submitted by Helen Hunter on 02/06/2017 - 07:44 pm.

    The last thing we need

    is another “boot camp” in this over-militarized society.

  9. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/06/2017 - 08:34 pm.

    Is it?

    “The fact that black, Hispanic and Native American students — boys, in particular — are disproportionately affected by these subjective exclusionary behavior practices makes it an equity issue in need of some corrective action.” So does it mean that boys are unfairly targeted? Is it a Title IX issue?

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/08/2017 - 11:09 am.

      Usual

      I think the answer is the usual one… It is a Single Parent household and Poverty issue…. Too bad folks want to keep blaming it on Racial Issues / Bias.

      I can guarantee my kids would have had many more challenges in school if my better half had not been there to do most of the heavy lifting.

  10. Submitted by Kari Musil on 02/16/2017 - 06:18 am.

    An area rarely mentioned…

    Cell phones and iPads in St.Paul are sometimes a source of misbehavior, BUT more importantly they are a huge distraction from learning at the middle and high school levels. As a retired educator of students from preschool through college I can confidently say that I’ve never met a student who didn’t want to learn; I truly believe young humans are hard-wired to seek out learning – despite low income and family disfunction. Since the roll out of the iPads 4 years ago I have noticed a very diverse array of teaching techniques for their use, often used as gap filler, and although cell phones are not allowed in class, they are omnipresent.

    The subjects of racism, the achievement gap and income disparities are very important and should never be ignored, but I believe the rules regarding appropriate technology use in the district are in serious need of an overhaul. Presently, there seems to be little consistency from class to class, and school to school. Examining how other metro area districts have solved these issues might be a good place to start.

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