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Looking to reduce discipline disparities, House bill would ban preschool suspensions in Minnesota

“Those who are not familiar with these statistics are often shocked to hear that students in preschool are three times more likely to be suspended than kids in K-12,” said Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights.

Bernadeia Johnson
Bernadeia Johnson, former superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, center, testifying at the House Early Childhood Finance and Policy committee hearing on March 14. State Rep. Ruth Richardson, the bill's author, is on the right.
MinnPost photo by Taryn Phaneuf

Advocates working to address school discipline disparities in Minnesota want to ban the use of suspensions for the state’s preschoolers, saying removing young students from the classroom mars their relationship with learning.

The Minnesota Department of Education doesn’t report preschool discipline data, so it’s unclear how common suspensions are among the state’s youngest students. But in 2017-18 K-5 students made up nearly a quarter of all discipline incidents, including suspensions, exclusions, and expulsions, state data show. While introducing HF 1785, Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, pointed to a national survey from 2016 that estimated 50,000 preschoolers — that’s 3- and 4-year-olds — were suspended at least once in a year, while another 17,000 were expelled.

“Those who are not familiar with these statistics are often shocked to hear that students in preschool are three times more likely to be suspended than kids in K-12,” said Richardson, whose bill is one of several looking to reduce student suspensions and expulsions in favor of non-exclusionary alternatives.

Addressing disparities — from the beginning

Advocates concerned about disparities have worked with legislators for years to set limits on suspensions and other exclusionary practices, which are often levied unevenly among students by race and ability. Data has long shown that children of color or those with disabilities are far more likely to face discipline that removes them from classrooms or schools.

While black students are suspended or expelled three times more often than white students nationally, in Minnesota they are removed eight times more often, Richardson told the House Early Childhood Finance and Policy Committee last week. Native students in Minnesota are expelled or suspended 10 times as often as white students. “Even without the preschool data, we have a real problem in Minnesota,” Richardson said. “There is no research that says American Indian students are 10 times more likely to be disruptive in class than others.”

Activists have drawn on those statistics to conclude that preschool suspensions are worth addressing at the state level. If nothing else, the state should begin tracking incidents, Marika Pfefferkorn, co-chair of the Solutions Not Suspensions Coalition, told the House committee. “We’re talking about young people who, at this time, are shaping and forming their relationship with education and learning. Because of that, we need to have them in the classroom.”

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Bernadeia Johnson, a former superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools who testified in favor of the preschool suspension ban, said students suspended at such an early age are put on a negative trajectory. And rather than changing their behavior, the experience sours their view of schools. 

The suspension bill, HF 1785, was originally written to ban suspensions for preschoolers through second-graders, and to limit suspensions involving third-through-fifth-graders by permitting them only when students were involved in violent incidents. It was amended to include only preschool to meet a committee deadline.

Before Johnson resigned as Minneapolis superintendent in 2014, she banned suspensions for nonviolent behavior in pre-K through second grade. She did so because she believes the age range represents a critical window for teaching children how to navigate a learning environment rather than removing them for the kind of unremarkable “naughty” behavior she found cited in discipline reports she reviewed each month.

Minneapolis School District data show the district didn’t suspend any preschoolers last year. The data show three suspensions, two out-of-school removals, and 14 in-school removals during the 2016-17 school year. The district suspended 76 kindergartners last school year. That’s down from 355 in 2013-14.

“I know some behaviors can be dangerous,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen preschool kids out of control. I know it can happen. But I also know the beauty of redirecting children and helping them understand what’s appropriate and not appropriate. If you show a child school is not a place for you, then you get socialized to believe that’s not a place for you.”

School principals, however, have expressed concerns about the state mandating how schools deal with discipline problems without providing additional funding to support those alternative methods. “You don’t just get suspended: something’s happening,” said Roger Aronson, legal and legislative counsel for the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association. “I do think the needs of kids of poverty, homeless, that are coming from abuse, broken families — that stuff comes to school and their needs for dealing with that are really huge. We just don’t have the resources to do anything. I understand there’s frustration with that in those settings. How do we work on that?”

While there are models schools can adopt, Aronson said, they cost money schools don’t currently have. “We need that commitment,” he said. “We have no counselors. We are understaffed on assistant principals.”

A mother’s mission

Days after testifying in support of suspension bill in the House, Idil Abdull sat in the audience of the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee on Monday, waiting for a chance to support Gov. Tim Walz’s student-discipline policy proposals.

The Walz administration’s proposals are included in the House education policy bill making its way through committees in that chamber. The Senate is also considering it. The legislation, HF 1711 and SF 2116, would require schools to follow non-exclusionary practices before resorting to suspensions or other exclusionary discipline. They also require more accountability and transparency with parents regarding a child’s discipline.

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The date Abdull’s son, who’s 16 and has nonverbal autism, was suspended from his Bloomington school last year is seared into her memory. His teacher had disrupted his routine. In response, he was crying on the floor when she came into his classroom, wondering where he was, since his teacher hadn’t escorted him out to the car. The next day, she got an email from the principal saying her son was suspended for five days.

She was baffled, then angry. “It hurt me. It didn’t bother my kid — he doesn’t understand it,” she said. “These are the people I trusted with my most precious gift from God. He is more important to me than every organ in my body. He’s profoundly affected by this disorder.”

Her son now attends a charter school in Minneapolis and she spends a lot of time at the Capitol advocating for new school discipline policies, and she agrees with other advocates that special attention should be paid to how schools address behavior among their youngest students.

“What could they possibly do wrong that you want to teach them at that age that they’re not welcome in school?” she said.