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Whatever happened to time-outs? Minneapolis and St. Paul districts still suspend hundreds of elementary students each year

During the 2016-17 school year, there were 1,251 K-5 suspensions in St. Paul Public Schools.

Last month, at a Minneapolis mayoral forum hosted at North High School, incumbent Betsy Hodges lauded Bernadeia Johnson, former Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent, for banning the use of suspension for nonviolent behavior for kindergartners and first-graders — a move that her successor, Michael Goar, expanded to cover all students through grade 5. The fact that schools would even resort to suspending an elementary student struck Hodges as “a ridiculous notion.”

It’s a consequence that may not cross the minds of many parents. But state data show that elementary student suspensions — removal from school for a period of 1 to 10 days — aren’t all that uncommon. During the 2015-16 school year, for example, Minneapolis Public Schools still reported 986 K-5 suspensions/exclusions/expulsions, while the numbers in the St. Paul public school district were even higher: 1,833 — the most in Minnesota.

(Expulsion is defined as "a school board action to prohibit an enrolled student from further attendance for up to 12 months from the date the student is expelled." Exclusion is "an action taken by the school board to prevent enrollment or re-enrollment of a student for a period that shall not extend beyond the school year.")

When contacted for a breakdown of its most recent elementary suspension data, St. Paul Public Schools staff expressed concern that those numbers can be misleading because of unclear reporting standards coming from the state Department of Education and inconsistent reporting standards across districts. For instance, Cindy Porter, a research analyst for the district, says there’s confusion among districts that are compiling discipline data — along with those looking at this data — over how special-education student dismissals and in-school suspensions are factored in.

Districts are required to self-report student disciplinary data through the state Department of Education’s electronic disciplinary incident reporting system — commonly known as DIRS. With the system, anyone can run a district-level report breaking down exclusionary discipline data — defined by the state Department of Education as either a suspension, exclusion or expulsion — by gender, race, incident type and grade (lumped into three buckets: K-5, 6-8 and 9-12).

Regardless of any imperfections with DIRS, the sheer number of K-5 suspensions in the St. Paul district is noteworthy. So here’s a closer look at the district’s most recent elementary-level suspension data, and the work being done to help ensure that the district’s youngest learners aren’t being suspended, unnecessarily, before they even hit puberty.

Some hot spots

According to the St. Paul district’s K-5 elementary disciplinary data for the 2016-17 school year, some schools are resorting to suspensions more often than others. District staff say there were no exclusions or expulsions last year. There were, however, 1,251 K-5 suspensions.

Of the 46 schools serving elementary students, nearly a third of them issued five or fewer suspensions over the course of the school year. Less than one quarter of the schools (10) accounted for 70 percent of all K-5 suspensions, at a count of 873. 

The top three schools accumulated 431 suspensions among 184 students, indicating that individual elementary students at these sites were suspended multiple times, on average.

Districtwide, 3 percent of all K-5 students served experienced at least one suspension. The rate increased to 5 percent for grades 4 and 5. The rate was lowest for kindergartners, at just 1 percent. But that still meant schools dealt 73 suspensions to kindergartners.

The leading reason for suspensions last year was physically violent behavior (fighting, aggression, etc.), causing 831 suspensions. Verbal and disorderly behavior incidents — for things like being disruptive or defiant, or damaging school property — accounted for 270 suspensions. 

As a whole, the district has been paying more attention, in recent years, to addressing the fact that certain student groups — students of color, in particular — are being suspended at disproportionately higher rates. These conversations tend to focus on middle- and high-schoolers. But Joe Munnich, assistant director of the district’s department of research, evaluation and assessment office, says these disparities are particularly acute at the elementary level.

“Although it’s a smaller number of suspensions, it is disproportionately students of color, particularly black students,” he said, adding the disparities break down along gender as well, with black girls being suspended at disproportionately higher rates.

Changing practices

While talks of placing an outright ban on nonviolent elementary suspensions haven't taken hold in the St. Paul district, district administrators say they’ve invested a lot into working with school leaders and staff on creating a school environment that prioritizes preventive measures like positive relationship building and that lays out varying levels of interventions to be explored before jumping to a suspension. With elementary students, that work includes modeling clear behavior expectations; and when a student exhibits an unexpected behavior, reteaching that behavior skill rather than assuming they are trying to misbehave, says Kristi Kohn, one of the district employees leading this work.

The tiered framework is called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, commonly known as PBIS. Erin Metz, the district’s other PBIS coordinator, says the push to implement this framework began in earnest a few years ago, when they started being more intentional about building out their data collection system, creating professional development resources that would be accessible to all educators in the district and creating better alignment around the initiative at the district level.

Earlier this week, they hosted a PBIS training session for elementary teachers. Participation at workshops like that have gone up, Metz says, adding that momentum around the effort is continuing to grow. At this point, she says, every single school building has adopted PBIS practices to some degree or another, customizing the framework to best meet the needs of their student and teacher population.

“Schools are at different places in that journey and implementation, and there are things that impact that every year — changes in enrollment and staffing and resources,” Metz said. 

Even at the elementary level, there are some non-negotiable grounds for suspension that are laid out in the student behavior handbook. In keeping with the PBIS philosophy, however, she says they’re encouraging educators to explore alternatives to suspensions whenever possible. In deciding on a more appropriate intervention, they encourage teachers and school administrators to consider the context, severity and frequency of a behavior — things like the student’s age, developmental level, and ability to understand the impact of their behavior.    

Andrew Collins, assistant superintendent for preK-5 schools for the district, is also working alongside the elementary school leaders he supervises to ensure they are effectively using the PBIS framework to improve the learning environment and reduce the use of punitive discipline practices at their schools. He’s looking at suspension data to home in on which elementary sites are issuing the most suspensions and having data-driven conversations with those principals, to identify hot spots — whether it be a certain grade or time of day.

“This isn’t about putting all the responsibility for a suspension happening on a teacher, a student, a principal. This is about understanding that broad ecosystem that exists in the buildings, but then what we can do to help and support,” he said. “When I work with my building administrators, I want this data to be informed, to help create an urgency surrounding what our response is — not to have that building lean away from the problem. If it turns into a finger pointing thing, then it becomes counterproductive.”

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Comments (12)

Please, one set of rules, behavior and

punishment for every student. One of the reason America has dropped to 35th in the world in education and only 1 of 12 countries getting worse results in the past 20 years is we worry about 2 trouble makers more than 30 willing students.. Ridiculous, the amount of wasted effort we spend on trouble makers! Teach the rules in Kindergarten and don’t change them until graduation. No one has the righ5 to disrupt the learning of our children being educated on our tax dollars.... Not really that hard!

Suspensions

I am glad there was a breakdown between suspensions involving violence vs. non-violence. Can everyone agree that it is ok to discipline kids for violent behavior? Years ago, a child at our elementary school was expelled after seriously injuring another child in an assault. The physical safety of children has to come first, even if you don't like the discipline numbers.

I wish there was more information about the non-violent suspensions. I know kids at the junior high level were suspended for non-stop bullying of other kids, and in one case for stealing other kids' phones. Were those classified as non-violent suspensions? They certainly weren't benign actions that could be addressed with a timeout.

Not about timeouts

Thanks, Pat Terry, for your observations. There is a mix, of course, of safety issues with consequences (punishments) in these decisions. However, I think the headline was a little misleading. We are left wondering about how much alternative responses are actually being implemented in different schools--not only timeout but also in-school suspension and restorative justice interventions, restitution, etc. PBIS seems like a step in the right direction of matching the discipline to the nature of the offense and the child's developmental level.

Time-outs

I used "time-outs" because the headline did - I don't mean to mock alternative means of improving behavior, which I support wherever possible. My concern comes from disastrous tenure of Valeria Silva's time as superintendent, where teachers were dis-empowered in their own classrooms and disruptive kids were kept in class without consequence, ruining class for everyone. The choice was between removing the one or two disruptive kids from class, or making class meaningless for the other 30. The no-discipline policy was implemented because the kids pulled out were disproportionately African-American. But keeping them in class didn't help them, and it hurt the other kids, over 70 percent of whom were non-white at the school at the time.

That's why I want to know more about the non-violent suspensions. Articles like this make the non-violent seem benign, which may not be the case. Is is kids who can't stop giggling? Or is it pre-teen boys who engage in daily (but non-violent) sexual harassment of their fellow students and female teachers (which occurred, and was not stopped thanks to Silva's policies). Since this is about elementary school behavior, I honestly don't know - my only experience with suspensions was kids who engaged in violence. What exactly is the non-violent behavior these kids are engaging in that gets them suspended?

There needs to be a practical solution.

If you have taught school in circumstances similar to what is experienced in the St. Paul schools as I have, you will appreciate that teachers cannot manage a lesson and sustain a learning environment when even one student is disruptive. If the other students are not to be deprived of their opportunity to learn, the only option is to remove the disruptive student when normal methods for redirection are unsuccessful. PERIOD. The district should have the necessary quiet space, staff, policies, and funding to take on remediation. Sending these broken kids back to the home situations that broke them in the first place is just not going to work. There really are no easy answers, since their parents are often strapped for time and resources or simply unable to manage because of their own problems. This is expensive stuff. You can't fix it by keeping disruptive kids in the classroom and putting up window dressing for the media. And even if there is additional expense, it is always cheaper to manage on the front end instead of through (heaven forbid) the prison system. One of the best bets is ECFE and all-day kindergarten for all, both of which provide early socialization skills and can be places to identify problems before they get out of hand.

Two things

First, who's handling these students one way or the other in the first place? Years of Republican attacks on public schools, teachers, wages, unions, and neoliberal support for "alternatives" have created a serious shortage of teachers. These problem children aren't responsible for the sorry state of our educations system, our idiotic approach to public education is responsible for that. And why do you expect poorly staffed and inexperienced teachers can or will deal with complex behavioral issues AND deliver state of the art instruction; when the fundamental narrative from Republicans has been that teachers are little more than an over-paid, and over-protected black hole that sucks down tax dollars? When any and every public employee of any kind other than law enforcement and firefighters are constantly portrayed as public enemy's how to you expect to recruit and retain good people?

Second, I've never understood the ease with which students are suspended and expelled. Our State Constitution establishes Education as a basic right, and rights cannot be denied without due process. I've never understood how suspensions and expulsions became such common "tools" for MN educators in the first place?

Tools

What makes you think that students are suspended and expelled with ease? Or that due process isn't available?

East and due process

The ease and frequency of suspensions is documented in this article, and elsewhere. Obviously the frequency is an issue or we wouldn't be talking about this. As for the due process, suspensions are simply administrative actions, the principle issues a suspension, done. Expulsion's require a hearing, but those who "hear" the complaint and decide the expulsion are typically superintendents, or school board members, not unbiased observers. So while there is a "process", I wonder whether or not it actually meets the Constitutional requirements of "Due Process".

We've had for instance highly publicized instances of inappropriate expulsions involving tweets and what not. The actual statute doesn't stipulate what kinds of actions can justify expulsion, only the process whereby expulsions can be invoked.

We could clarify the laws, stipulate for instance that expulsions can only be invoked for violent threatening behavior. We could even codify laws regarding suspensions, tighten them up. That would decrease the suspensions and expulsions but as long as the schools aren't equipped to handle the students that could just exacerbate the disruption problem in the schools. I would first get the school environment under control with sufficiently trained, compensated, and appropriate staff, then look at tightening up the laws. We can't just push the problem around, we have to resolve it.

Suspensions

The article documents the frequency of suspensions, but my question was about "ease" which the article does not address And short of actual violence (again, I assume we can agree that warrants suspension) it can very difficult to suspend kids. Disruptive and harassing behavior can be allowed to go on before weeks or months before action is taken.

Suspensions can actually be appealed - I am aware of cases where kids were initially suspended and then the suspension did not go forward.

As an attorney, I have been involved in numerous types of administrative hearings and witnessed the application of due process (although not ever in a public school setting). And unfortunately, it is often the case that the people hearing appeals are insiders and not unbiased parties, and yet that is deemed to be constitutional. Its not limited to schools. Short of actual criminal prosecution, satisfying constitutional requirements is a very low bar.

Schools do need to be better funded. If you have 30 or 40 kids in a class and 1 or 2 that are constantly disruptive, no teacher is going to be able get that under control. It isn't about sufficient training or appropriate staff. But that funding isn't coming anytime soon, and schools and teachers are left with a choice - keeping those 1 or 2 kids in class to improve the numbers, or have an environment where the other 38 or 39 kids can actually learn something. No one benefits from keeping the disruptive kids around - they just learn that there won't be consequences for their behavior.

As I said in my initial comment, I want to know more about what the non-violent suspensions were for. Maybe they were inappropriate, maybe not. But people seem to think that the lack of violence means the behavior was benign, but that isn't the case. When junior high girls are subjected to daily non-stop sexual harassment in class, I want the teachers and schools to have the power to remove those kids - even though there isn't actual violence.

Difficult?

Suspension is not a difficult administrative procedure, and while suspension CAN be appealed, it all depends on the length of suspension and conditions for return.

Ongoing disruption in the class rooms isn't product of to few suspensions or difficulty of suspension, it's just a difficult situation.

Disabled Students

I was struck with a statistic in a MInnPost article last year which stated that 40% of the students in St. Paul who were sent home were children with disabilities. If this is true, it seems more helpful to have staff trained in intellectual, behavioral, and emotional differences at schools rather than lawyers, judges and resource officers. Instead of sending students into an environment of distress at home to provide them and their families with counseling support to work on resolving issues to create successful pathways to education for all students. The continuous inadequate funding for public schools in Minnesota by the legislature suppresses each schools opportunities to find more creative student supportive solutions to expulsion tactics in schools.

Yeah, that's the thing

As a general rule disruptive kids are almost by definition behaviorally challenged, kids with disabilities. Teenagers may be a different story but still a high percentage will be those with diagnosable behavior issues. We can't simply accept a fact of inadequate funding and resources and a consequent manufactured dilemma of providing educations to 35 students by denying educations to 2 other students. Furthermore, suspensions and expulsions don't REALLY solve the problem because State Law requires that the school still provide education, typically by moving the student elsewhere.

Again, moving problems around is rather like rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship. Moving suspended and expelled student around doesn't resolve the issue.

The other problem with the scenario that Pat Terry presents, i.e. large class sizes and disruptive students, is that the class size itself exaggerates disruption. If the student to teacher ration is high enough, even small disruptions that could otherwise be manageable become unmanageable. So now you're suspending and expelling students for behavior that would otherwise be manageable simply because the class sizes and student-teacher ratios are too high.