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

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.

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.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”