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Keynoter at Human Rights Symposium lays out reasons to find school-suspension alternatives

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Duke Law School professor Jane Wettach frames access to school as a basic human right that’s being denied to nearly 2 million students who are suspended every year, nationwide.

As proponents of student-discipline reform measures that prioritize alternatives to suspensions continue to advocate at the federal level — where officials are considering rolling back Obama-era guidance aimed at ending exclusionary and punitive discipline practices — momentum behind this work continues to grow in Minnesota.

At the Human Rights Symposium held at the St. Paul RiverCentre on Tuesday afternoon, the keynote speaker, Duke Law School professor Jane Wettach, framed access to school as a basic human right that’s being denied to nearly 2 million students who are suspended every year, nationwide. (She’s seen figures that place that number as high as 3.8 million, she noted.) Those suspensions result in an estimated 18 million lost instructional days — “a lot of education down the tubes,” she said.

Here in Minnesota, school officials approved nearly 50,000 suspensions last year, she said. The sheer number is cause for concern because studies show there’s a high correlation between having been suspended and a number of negative outcomes: poor academic achievement, feeling disconnected from school, truancy and a later risk of incarceration.

Completing a brief review of the research in this field, Wettach pointed out there’s no connection between a suspension and better behavior in the future. Furthermore, schools that use suspension a lot, it turns out, are not safer schools, she said.

While there’s a strong case to be made for moving away from using suspensions altogether, disparities in “how suspensions are meted out” are also very concerning, she added. Citing some local statistics, she pointed out that children with disabilities in Minnesota are suspended at twice their rate in the school population — “even though the federal law gives protections to students with disabilities from being suspended when their conduct is related to their disability,” she noted.

The disparities that break down along racial lines are even more glaring. Nationwide, African-American students are suspended at three to four times their rates in the population, she said. But in Minnesota, they’re suspended at eight times their rates in the population, she added — with Native American students in Minnesota being suspended at 10 times their rates in the population.

If, in fact, access to an education is a human right — as Wettach and those hosting the symposium, including the Minnesota Department of Human Rights  contend — then a lot of work remains to be done on this front. And that doesn’t necessarily mean pitting the rights of kids who misbehave against those who don’t. Rather, it means persuading and supporting adults in schools to make a more concerted effort to help students address the root causes of their misbehavior without pushing them out.  

The key, here, is to adopt a mindset of disciplining students in need of some social-emotional skill support, instead of punishing them, Wettach explained. That means taking a teaching approach — engaging the student in problem solving, focusing on building self-esteem, developing long-term solutions, helping the child make amends and accept responsibility — rather than a punitive approach to the conflict at hand.

“They actually need to learn how to behave in a really intentional, structured way,” Wettach said.

Education as human right

In introducing Wettach, Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said that the use of suspensions and expulsions in schools is something his department has an interest in, and they’ve been “looking at that information for quite some time.”

Historically, this state department has always dealt with some education cases, Lindsey said in an interview the day before. But he believes it’s “been a little more active in that space” just within the past five or six years.

Part of that has to do with staffing resources at the department. Now celebrating its 50-year anniversary, the department — tasked with upholding the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which protects all Minnesotans from discrimination based on protected class criteria in multiple realms, such as employment and education — has survived budget cuts over the years, while simultaneously taking on more responsibilities.

Though underresourced, Lindsey — who was appointed to office in 2011 — says the use of suspensions has been on his radar.

“I can recall having conversations during my time as  commissioner in which have people raised the issue: ‘Is this something we should look at?” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily always mean, however, that I felt I had the resources to actually be able to position the conversation to lead to an equitable outcome. Now I feel like we’re in the position to be able to do that.”

How this department chooses to involve itself in education investigations, moving forward, won’t really be influenced by things happening at the federal level, where the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights may soon be asked to take a step back from the conversation around ending the use of suspensions. 

“Federal government oversight concerning the administration of civil rights within schools typically has not been something that’s been coordinated with local state officials. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been attempts to try to do that. But historically, it hasn’t been well coordinated between the two,” Lindsey said, adding that sometimes that arrangement ends up being beneficial.

For instance, as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance protecting transgender students’ rights, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights supported efforts within the state Department of Education to adopt a toolkit providing guidance to schools on how to do just the opposite — to create safe and supportive schools for these students.

In other instances, Lindsey’s office — which technically operates as a neutral investigative agency — takes the lead on holding schools accountable. For instance, in early 2016, after completing a two-year investigation into a sexual harassment claim against a senior administrator in the Hibbing School District, the department announced it had found probable cause for sexual discrimination and held the district accountable for implementing a number of changes.

Looking more broadly at issues of discrimination in schools, the department invited a number of speakers to host panels on alternatives to suspensions at the symposium on Tuesday. Wettach’s keynote address helped lay the groundwork for these conversations and highlighted some of the discipline strategies outlined in a report she co-authored in 2015 — “Instead of suspensions: Alternative Strategies for Effective School Discipline — which was designed to serve as a free resource for educators.

“Sometimes people get stuck and are not able to imagine what other options are out there,” Lindsey said. “I like the information she laid out.”  

Alternatives to suspensions

Before previewing her report on alternative to suspensions, Wettach took a few minutes to share a story about the child whose circumstances inspired her to dive headlong into this work.

In addition to teaching education law at Duke, she also serves as the director of the Children’s Law Clinic, working with law students to represent students in public schools who have run into issues regarding special education matters or school suspensions.

Through that work, in North Carolina, she encountered a 12-year-old boy who was facing a suspension from December through the end of the school year. He’d been suspended a number of other times prior. And when caught about to strike another student one day, school administrators decided they’d exhausted all other options, she said.

Upon investigating the boy’s situation, Wettach and her students found he’d been living in a hotel with his mother and two siblings. Not only was he effectively homeless, but he was also cooped up in that hotel room most nights because they didn’t have a car and the hotel was located at a busy intersection, making it unsafe for him to play outside unsupervised.

“It was completely predictable … that he would have a lot of negative energy,” she said. “He’s 12. He doesn’t understand why he’s living at a hotel. He doesn’t know how to interact, doesn’t have much to draw on.”

Despite this added context, they lost their case against the school administration. They appealed to the superintendent and lost again. At that point, the boy’s mother, discouraged, didn’t want to even try appealing to the school board. Wettach says the outcome left her feeling ashamed and motivated to make sure others like this boy didn’t fall through the cracks in this way.

The report, inspired by that experience, lays out 11 different tools that teachers and school administrators can employ to start thinking more critically about how they enforce behavior expectations at school.

The list includes things that have already gained traction in Minnesota schools in recent years, like the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) program, which is geared toward making social-emotional learning part of the regular school day in the way that any other basic school subject would be taught, using lessons and activities.  

She also touched on the power schools have to rethink how they’re allocating resources traditionally used to hire School Resource Officers, cops who work in schools. Administrators could decide to invest more in student support personnel like school counselors and social workers. And if they do choose to invest in school cops, they can play a more active role in ensure the right cops — those who understand adolescent development, what is means to be an autistic child, and the difference between misbehavior and criminal behavior — are assigned to their schools.

Noting an additional strategy not included in the report, Wettach said trauma-informed schools have been gaining ground across the nation as well.

“The way it’s structured is: Think about asking the question of ‘What happened to you?’ instead of ‘What’s wrong with you?’ when children are misbehaving,” she said. “Adverse childhood experiences actually affect the neurobiology of children in pretty significant ways.”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/13/2017 - 10:47 am.


    There is indeed a high correlation between suspensions and later bad outcomes. What is absent, however, is any evidence of causation. Kids who are violent and disruptive in school are frequently the kids who drop out and/or end up in jail. Suspensions aren’t what sent them along that path.

    And it is probably true that suspensions don’t help the suspended kids. But its not for them – its for the other kids. She uses an example of a suspended student who was about to strike another student. What about the rights of the intended victim? Doesn’t he or she have the right to go to school without being assaulted? And while not all suspensions are for violent behavior, that doesn’t mean that the behavior is benign. It often consistutes bullying and/or sexual harassment. Kids should be able to go to school without being tormented by their peers. But if you can’t remove the bullies and harassers from the classroom, it won’t stop. If you keep one disruptive and/or abusive kid in class, you destroy the educational experience for the other 30 kids.

    I want my kids, and all kids, and their teachers, to be safe in school. To be free of bullying and harassment. To have an opportunity in class to learn instead of being disrupted by kids who have no interest in being there. I’d love to help the kids who are getting suspended and heading for bad outcomes. But not at the expense of the safety and education of other kids.

    On a side note, I think it should be “radar” not “rader.”

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 12/13/2017 - 11:58 am.

    One set of rules for everyone.

    Please stop with the BS of trying not to offend anybody while dealing with the education of our children. 2 trouble makers disrupt 28 children trying to learn, that is the true meaning of unfair. In the last 35 years America has gone from leading the world in education to 35th. Please don’t make it worse with more rules and regulations that keep trouble makers in the class room.

  3. Submitted by John Webster on 12/13/2017 - 12:15 pm.

    Why Charter Schools Exist

    I chose to send my kids to two suburban charter schools for K-8 because of those schools’ superior liberal arts curricula. During those years, I met and spoke with many dozens of parents at those schools, with the conversations naturally always turning to our kids. I assumed that most parents opted out of their neighborhood public schools for the same reason I did.

    I was very wrong. The top reason – by far – for sending their kids to charter schools was to escape the endemic student misbehavior issues in the neighborhood public schools – in the suburbs, NOT in Minneapolis and St. Paul. These charter school kids and parents were white, black, Asian, Hispanic, every race. The parents wanted their kids to be physically safe and in orderly classrooms not disrupted by chronic troublemakers.

    If anyone has a way to turn around the negative behavior of kids who are currently being suspended, I’m all for whatever techniques work. But there is no human right to be in a school and ruin the educational opportunities for other kids.

    P.S. The behavior issue is a big reason why so many affluent liberals – think Mark Dayton – who sing the praises of traditional public schools send their own kids to private schools for every day of K-12.

    • Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 12/13/2017 - 02:46 pm.

      Charter schools in their current form are segregating.

      They were originally intended to be laboratories for creative educational experimentation from which traditional public schools could learn. The charter school concept has morphed into schools to which motivated and often affluent parents flee to escape the problems of traditional public schools. Students indeed have the right to a safe environment and I don’t blame those parents. But let’s forget the oft-cited myth that charter schools and traditional public schools operate on a level playing field.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/13/2017 - 03:14 pm.

        Level playing field

        I have a lot of thoughts about charter schools, most of which aren’t relevant to the discussion here. But the point being made by Mr. Webster – that parents (of kids of all races) are moving their kids to charter schools in order to keep them physically safe and free from disruption – is accurate and very relevant.

        Part of the uneven playing field is that charter schools aren’t subject to terrible ideas from idiots like Wettach. People like her – who promote the idea that violent and disruptive students should not be removed – are undermining public education. To level the playing field, parents invested in public school for their kids need to stand up to the nonsense being pushed by people like Wettach. Letting problem kids stay in class to engage in violence and disrupt everyone else’s learning isn’t benefitting anyone.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 12/13/2017 - 09:35 pm.

        Give school vouchers (to everyone)

        and solve the segregation issue.

  4. Submitted by Ray Lewis on 12/13/2017 - 02:50 pm.

    Trauma informed education and advocacy

    Adverse childhood experiences (ACES) is a growing area of research into behavioral issues across many aspects across the life spectrum. Upstream prevention and rehabilitation would reduce a lot of subsequent harm, but kids don’t vote or donate.

    “The way it’s structured is: Think about asking the question of ‘What happened to you?’ instead of ‘What’s wrong with you?’ when children are misbehaving,” she said. “Adverse childhood experiences actually affect the neurobiology of children in pretty significant ways.”

  5. Submitted by Michael Hess on 12/16/2017 - 06:35 pm.

    Lost educational days

    These articles always highlight the “lost educational days down the tubes” for the child suspended and studiously ignore the days lost by the rest of the class when a child disrupts their entire class or requires the teachers full time attention because of their behavior.

    Even disciplinary approaches that keep the child on school property but out of the classroom are not likely to reproduce the education they miss – but at least they may restore order and a chance to the rest of the students. The rest of the school population needs to be thought of as well in these strategies.

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