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

During the 2015-16 school year, the Minneapolis Public Schools district reported 986 K-5 suspensions; St. Paul Public Schools reported 1,833. Both are trying to lower the numbers.

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.

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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.

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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.”