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Minnesota educators weigh in on student discipline debate unfolding in D.C.

Mary Schwalm
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government earlier this year.

A few weeks ago, two former Minnesota teachers joined U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ colleagues in Washington, D.C., to make a case for rolling back Obama-era guidance on student discipline. This Friday, a handful of Minnesota educators, advocates and parents will be making that same trek to offer a counterpoint argument at a public hearing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.  

The guidance in question, issued via a “Dear Colleague Letter on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline” in 2014, laid out the fact that students of color — African-American students, in particular —  are disproportionately impacted by exclusionary discipline policies and practices. Research has shown that such gaps cannot be attributed to students of color simply acting out more frequently or in more extreme ways, the letter says. Rather, the discipline data and research suggest that students of color are being held to different standards when it comes to behavior expectations.

“In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem,” read a line in the letter.

This translates into a disproportionate loss of instructional time for students of color who are sent out of the classroom, often for subjective infractions like defiance. Framed as a civil rights issue — since studies have linked exclusionary discipline policies and practices with adverse impacts on students’ trajectories like reduced engagement and academic achievement, and an increased likelihood of dropping out and ending up in the juvenile justice system — the letter lays out guidance to “ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to learn and grow in school.”

In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has played a pretty significant role in singling out Minnesota districts that have discipline disparities and then holding them publicly accountable for taking steps to reduce those disparities. If, in fact, the feds plan to take a less aggressive stance on this issue, where does that leave Minnesota schools? Or, more important, where does that leave students whose access to the classroom may be unfairly impacted by a teacher’s implicit or explicit racial bias?

A strong Minnesota presence

The two Minnesota representatives who flew to D.C. to voice concerns over these Obama-era guidelines have been critics of local attempts to reduce discipline disparities. Former St. Paul teacher John Ekblad sued the district last year after suffering a concussion and traumatic brain injury from a student assault. Former Edina teacher Debbie York also resigned after allegedly being injured by a student. Their testimonies support the opposition’s narrative: that increased pressure placed on teachers and administrators to keep misbehaving students in the classroom, in order to meet “racial quotas,” has backfired to the point of becoming a safety issue.

According to media reports, Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation — which participate in the meeting along with the Center of the American Experiment in Minnesota, a conservative think tank — confirmed that both Minnesota teachers shared their stories, in a pitch to rescind the federal guidance.

Minnesotans of a different mindset will soon be making their case before federal officials in D.C. at a public hearing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is scheduled for Dec. 8. The Minnesota chapter of Educators for Excellence will be sending a teacher who works in the Minneapolis Public Schools district. Ed Allies, a local education reform group, will be represented by Josh Crosson, its senior policy director. And the local Solutions Not Suspensions campaign will send parent and community representatives, with the support of travel scholarships from the Dignity in Schools Campaign, its national parent group.

“I think the narrative that’s coming from some of these teachers around the violence perpetrated against teachers aligns really well with the current administration’s thinking. So rather than having a broad listening session of folks that are impacted … they really hand-picked the voices they wanted to hear in order make a decision about federal discipline guidelines, knowing they didn’t include the folks who are most impacted by the disparities that are outlined in the guidance,” said Marika Pfefferkorn, co-chair of the Minnesota-based Solutions Not Suspensions group and board member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign.

She says any attempts to roll back the prior administration’s discipline guidance could come as a huge setback to all of the work that’s been done to shift the conversation from one focused on the misbehavior of students to one that’s focused on the disproportionate reactions of teachers.

“When you don’t have federal guidance, it’s easier for our local Department of Education to not take it as seriously,” she added. “There is no mandate that says school districts have to do this. But what it does is demonstrate the expectation and gives you a roadmap. This has been happening for quite some time, but we hadn’t been collecting the data, so people didn’t want to believe that it existed. Now that we have data that negates the negative narrative around black children, they want that to be erased.”

Shining a light on local disparities

In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has heightened public awareness of discipline disparities in Minnesota districts — notably, the Minneapolis Public Schools district and the Rochester Public Schools district. In addition to analysing discipline data, the federal office continues to monitor districts as they work on taking steps to reduce these gaps, as outlined in the voluntary resolution agreements they entered into.

The Minneapolis Public Schools district entered into a voluntary resolution agreement with OCR in the fall of 2014, after the federal office investigated its discipline data spanning from 2010 to 2012 and found that black students made up 40 percent of the student body, yet were subject to nearly three-quarters of the district’s recorded disciplinary incidents, including over 60 percent of the in-school suspensions, over 78 percent of the out-of-school suspensions and over 69 percent of the referrals to law enforcement.

The report goes on to flag other patterns in the discipline data and spelled out some examples of how discipline measures were being enforced in an inequitable way. For instance, the OCR investigation called out instances of “assigning a white student being sent to an alternative instruction room for fighting with another student, while suspending out of school for one or two days four black students who engaged in similar fights.”

In accordance with the agreement, the district revised its discipline policies at the start of the 2014-15 school year and took a number of other concrete steps to reduce discipline disparities, including the establishment of positive school-wide engagement department — with teams at each individual school site — and placing a moratorium on K-5 suspensions for nonviolent behavior.

As the district enters its fourth year of working with the OCR, Michael Thomas, the district’s chief of schools, says inconsistencies in how discipline data is collected at the district, state and federal levels continue to present a challenge. Because of the incompatibility between systems, he says, the district’s’ discipline numbers may end up looking worse than they really are.

Minneapolis Public Schools
Minneapolis Public SchoolsThe Minneapolis Public Schools district entered into a voluntary resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in the fall of 2014.

Beyond that frustration — which has been voiced by administrators in other districts as well — Thomas says the district has been on time with submitting progress reports to the OCR and is “on track to probably ending the relationship,” given the progress they’ve made.

“What I think it did for us is it opened up the conversation — both internally and with the community — around how we can improve,” he said. “They didn’t shine a light on something that we weren’t already addressing. But I think with OCR, through their questioning, it allowed us to reflect in a very different way, or a deeper way, to get some different responses. So I think it’s been helpful.”

A quick look at discipline data from the 2015-16 school year, as presented in the state’s self-reported Disciplinary Incident Reporting System, or DIRS, shows that racial discipline disparities still plague the district. While black students only made up 36 percent of the student body, they accounted for 78 percent of all out-of-school suspensions for one day or more, expulsions and exclusions.

At the start of the 2015 school year, a similar OCR investigation into discipline disparities in the Rochester Public Schools district resulted in a voluntary resolution agreement as well. Disciplinary data revealed that during the 2013-14 school year, black students were the subject of 39 percent of all disciplinary incidents, even though they only represented 13.7 percent of the student body. Further breakdown of discipline data revealed how black males, in particular, were disproportionately subject to harsher disciplinary measures, including for subjective offenses such as defiance and disruption.

The report notes that the district was in the midst of fully implementing a Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS), which includes restorative justice methods such as peer mediation and peer/faculty mentoring programs. Regardless, the OCR investigation and agreement prompted the district to agree to take a number of other steps toward reducing racial discipline disparities, including additional review of discipline data.

According to the most recent DIRS data, last school year black students accounted for 39 percent of all out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and exclusions, yet they only represented 12 percent of the student body.

Kolloh Nimley, an outspoken critic of the racial discipline disparities in the Rochester district who formerly worked for the Rochester-based state office of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, says even with the OCR involved, the district hasn’t done enough to improve lines of communication between school officials and the parents of color whose children are being disciplined.

“The [progress] report being submitted to OCR is not totally honest, when the district says, ‘We’re doing this and things are getting better,’ but they’re not,” she said. “I’m not sure if it takes another parent to file a complaint and start over, or if people are throwing their hands up in the air. … it shouldn’t be that way.”

While a district spokesperson didn’t return a request for comment, Nimley’s observations don’t bode well for continued progress on this front if, in fact, the feds end up taking a step back from this work.

“I think it’s very, very good that Minnesota has representatives to go testify at the federal level because Minnesota has been viewed, at the national level, as one of the leaders in everything that we do,” she said. “But we have to make it very clear that we do still have things that we need to work on, and those disparities that need to be addressed. To do that, Minnesota needs to be the one to come up with a solution on how to address those issues.”

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/05/2017 - 11:44 am.

    All wrong

    “This translates into a disproportionate loss of instructional time for students of color who are sent out of the classroom, often for subjective infractions like defiance.”

    The alternative, though, is a loss of instructional time for a whole classroom if the disruptive kids are kept in class. And the behavior that gets minimized as subjective defiance, often actually constitutes threats, bullying and/or sexual harassment.

    “studies have linked exclusionary discipline policies and practices with adverse impacts on students’ trajectories like reduced engagement and academic achievement, and an increased likelihood of dropping out and ending up in the juvenile justice system”

    Put another way, kids who can’t behave in class end up dropping out and/or in the juvenile justice system. It isn’t the discipline that’s making them drop out/go to jail. There’s a correlation there, but it isn’t the cause.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/06/2017 - 06:44 am.

    My 2¢

    Speaking as an old, broken-down, retired public school teacher…

    The article has plenty of acronyms and percentages, which mostly dance around the very important (crucial, I’d say) points made by Pat Terry. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for worthwhile instruction to take place in a classroom if there is a persistently disruptive child in that room. Having observed this sort of situation many times over a 30-year career, my humble opinion as a former practitioner is that Pat’s first point, in particular, seems absolutely relevant. Unless school districts (and their parent/taxpayers) are willing to pay for in-class intervention in the form of greatly increased personnel, which seems laughably unlikely when the legislature won’t even fund statewide pre-K experiences for children, it seems to me there are essentially two alternatives to disruptive behavior.

    One, the more obvious and controversial one, is to remove the child from the classroom. For that child, there are numerous negatives that go with implementing this choice, but, as Pat has pointed out, there are numerous positives for every other child in that classroom as a consequence of taking this sort of action. The needs of one, or two, cannot be allowed to supersede the needs of 25 other children in that same classroom, each of whom deserves the same kind of energy and attention currently being devoted to the disruptive child.

    The other, more long-term answer, is to develop in all children a level of self-discipline that largely precludes classroom disruption. This requires, in some cases, a completely new set of attitudes on the part of both child and parent(s). It can be done, and I’ve observed it being done, but only on an individual basis that’s simply not practicable as a district-wide solution, and as an institutional response, it also pretty much ignores a host of ethical and political issues that would have to be addressed.

    I’m not a fan of out-of-school suspension, but in financially-strapped school districts that can’t afford the expense of additional personnel to work with disruptive children on an in-school basis, it may be the only practical alternative to continued disruption, and it’s the continued disruption that’s the issue.

    Discrimination in the form of more harsh discipline for one group over another when the offense is the same is inexcusable. That said, however, it matters not what percentage of the student body is of a particular heritage when it comes to behavior and decorum (a very old-fashioned term I like to use occasionally). If the shoe fits, you wear it. If most of the disruptive behavior is coming from kids of a particular group, it’s worth investigating why that’s the case. If – and it’s a very important “if” – discrimination can be ruled out as an institutional response, then whatever discipline is being applied is being applied to the children who’ve earned the disciplinary response, and that’s as it should be.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 12/06/2017 - 12:12 pm.

    One set of rules for everyone.

    Maybe with a bit more discipline , a dash of math and a pinch of writing/reading we could break into the top 30 in educating our children worldwide. We were number 1 in the world in educating our children but that was with “reading, writing and arithmetic taught to the tune of a hickory stick “. Now we are more worried about what they learn, than simply how to learn.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 12/10/2017 - 01:02 pm.


    Erin, I appreciate the article and the attention it deserves. There is now a huge disconnect between the Office of the US Secretary of Education and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. You accurately covered the Trump administration’s approach to gather the people that will give them the ultraconservative right, political answer that they want. The MDHR is working with public schools (I am working with a public charter school) to decrease the dis-proportionality of students of color receiving suspensions and expulsions – starting at a workshop tomorrow at the University of St. Thomas.

    I don’t see this as an “either/or” argument. Either, if you try to decrease suspensions and expulsions you will make schools less safe? Or, if you just focus on the 3Rs and use a hickory stick discipline will be taken care of?

    We have been focusing on staff development in the areas of cultural competency, equity, restorative practice, and restorative justice for the last two school years. Student behavior is a complex issue in an urban setting. We have high concentrations of poverty, homelessness, students with special needs, and students struggling with their sexual identity as they mature. We also have many Somali students who have come from refugee camps and countries where violence is commonplace. Put all of these various students in a classroom and teach any content area you choose. It won’t be easy.

    I do know what parents want. They want their children to be safe in school. They also want their children to be treated fairly and behave themselves. To achieve a safe environment in our schools suspensions and expulsions are appropriate and necessary in some cases.

    What the MDHR is focusing on is the “subjective” nature of suspensions and expulsions and the inherent biases that some staff have toward students of color, students that are LGBTQ, students that are in special education, and students that are being consistently disruptive. Getting at the “subjective” nature of discipline will take considerable staff training and consistency and accountability among our seven different programs. We welcome the help from MDHR. I worry that Secretary DeVos and President Trump will confuse the issue even more by using the process they have set up. We need researched based solutions that work (not political expediency) in order to help with a complex problem that has plagued us for decades.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 12/11/2017 - 12:06 pm.

    An interesting

    article in the 12/11/17 issue of The New Yorker magazine talks about a school system within the State of New York called Success Academy. Rigid discipline and student-centered learning is commonplace in this Charter school network which serves mostly students from black and Latino low income families. They weed out students by maintaining high expectations of behavior and academic achievement. Suspension is used regularly with as many as 20% of students being suspended at least once at some Success Academy schools, and in one school which only had kindergartners and first graders, 18% of the students were suspended at least once.

    From the article, “…with authoritarian approaches you can get a lot done, but what kind of learners are you developing when the core values are around compliance? Can you educate children in an authoritarian context and also empower them to be active agents in their own lives, who think critically and question injustice in the world around them ?”

    A John Dewey pemise, ….”A school should be a model of what democratic adult culture is about……most of what we learn in life we learn from the company we keep.”

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