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MPS’ suspension ban for youngest students part of effort to reduce glaring racial disparities in discipline

While applauding Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson for making the move, some district insiders suggested it was long overdue.

On Friday, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson announced a moratorium on the suspension of preschoolers, kindergarteners and first graders in Minneapolis Public Schools whose behavior is disruptive but not violent.

Also new: Principals who want to send a child home for aggressive behavior in those grades will have to convince an associate superintendent that there is no constructive alternative — a tall order. “We want to focus on the social-emotional learning of the child,” said School Board Chair Richard Mammen. “There are concerns that these are teachable moments for very young children and we will pay greater attention.”

The moratorium is the latest in a series of moves aimed at eliminating glaring disparities in discipline rates for students of color. For African American boys in particular, suspensions are a key place where the school-to-prison pipeline gets primed.

The issue is under the microscope nationally. Even as a U.S. Justice Department investigation of MPS’ discipline disparities is ongoing, federal education officials have released new guidelines aimed at reducing time students are excluded from school. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative has turned the nation’s focus to black boys.

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While applauding the move to end early-years suspensions, some district insiders suggested it was long overdue. Outside groups — most prominently the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership and ISAIAH — have worked to draw attention to the issue.

Overall suspensions in MPS have fallen by nearly 20 percent over the last five years. Yet disparities persist: District-wide in 2012-2013, 10 times as many African American students were suspended as any other subgroup. Boys made up two-thirds of suspensions. 

MPS suspension rates by ethnic group

Source: Minneapolis Public Schools

Visit any kindergarten class and it’s easy to pick out the children whose lack of preschool opportunities means they don’t yet know to raise their hands for a chance to talk or to resolve conflicts, Johnson said by way of example.

“In those grades kids are learning how to be in a more structured environment,” she said. “If you don’t know how to use your words, you throw things and you hit.”

Too often schools see willful misbehavior and mete out punitive consequences — counterproductive at any age but particularly harmful to small children whose chief tasks should include learning to see school as a place where they can be successful.

“There’s a danger of setting up this thing of, ‘I don’t like school and school doesn’t like me,’” said Johnson. “Everyone has bad days. You still have to go to school.”

Other young children who are perceived as acting out have undiagnosed cognitive or learning disabilities or unmet mental health needs. Many lack stable housing. 

Last year, MPS suspended kindergarteners and first graders 246 times. Nonviolent “disruptive, disorderly or insubordinate” behavior was cited as the reason 60 percent of the time. No children were suspended from the district’s pre-K High Five program.

The kindergarten suspensions involved 56 students attending 25 schools; 92 first-graders were suspended from 19 schools. Overall, 2 percent of kindergarteners and 2.5 percent of first graders were suspended at least once during the year.

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While all of the MPS schools with high suspension rates in the early years have impoverished student bodies, poverty does not appear to determine the rate at which students are disciplined by removal from the classroom.

For instance, all of Bethune Community’s 387 K-5 students are impoverished. Last year 15 kindergartners and 39 first graders were suspended.

Nellie Stone Johnson Community School’s 288 K-8 students have similar demographics. Yet just two kindergartners and 6 first-graders were suspended last year.

Lucy Laney suspended 36 while Bryn Mawr and Jefferson each excluded 34 from the classroom; Sheridan Fine Arts suspended 18.

The differences may reflect the ability of the staff in a given building to find ways to support teachers who are struggling to manage their classrooms despite disruptive student behavior.

Earlier this year, the Minneapolis School Board voted to adopt a new behavior standards policy geared toward keeping as many kids as possible in class all the time. Over the summer, key staff received training on alternatives to “exclusionary practices,” including creating a school climate that reinforces positive behavior.

A disproportionate number of African American students everywhere receive the special ed diagnosis Emotional Behavioral Disorder. A high level of student engagement and staff cultural competency can have a dramatic effect in reducing over-identification.

As a part of the new behavioral standards being rolled out this year, district leaders are sharing detailed data about disciplinary episodes with principals. One such session Thursday had leaders comparing notes on seeming flashpoints.

For example, one trend revealed is that discipline spikes on Thursdays in elementary schools. Apprised of this by MPS Director of Research and Evaluation Eric Moore, the district’s principals were quick to note that Thursdays are when students in many schools learn whether they have earned enough positive-behavior points for a Friday treat.

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“Principals are already starting to have higher level conversations,” said Moore. “Perhaps that’s not the best way to motivate students.” 

Similarly, it’s always been assumed that suspensions go up near holidays, Moore added. In fact, they rise near the end of each quarter as grades have to be submitted. 

Starting this fall, principals will have access to “dashboards” that allow them to see disciplinary data by race, disability status, mobility, day of the week and time of day. MPS will add geographic location soon, Moore said.

“Now we can cut it by [demographic] groups and see whether an intervention is working for a subgroup,” he said. “We can really look at data in more sophisticated ways that will allow us to better support schools.”

If experiences in other districts are any indicator, that support will be crucial. St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) this spring saw a small uprising of parents and teachers frustrated with the district’s move to include most special education students in mainstream classrooms.

At a packed school board meeting, St. Paul administrators and community members appeared to truly listen to each others’ concerns, with the district promising help for teachers struggling to keep classes on track.

“We certainly can learn from their experience that this is not as simple as telling people you can’t suspend,” said Mammen. “It’s really about leadership in the schools. That has to include parents as well as community service providers and other concerned individuals.”