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

Its recommendations include adding support staff and giving students second chances, but it failed to define “willful” defiance, a common reason given for taking disciplinary measures.

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.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

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.

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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.”