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Tackling discipline disparities: MPS data illuminate possibilities for change

Eric Moore
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband
Eric Moore

Just before the start of the school year Eric Moore, who is Minneapolis Public Schools’ data guru, gave a presentation to a group of principals. He was hoping to sell them on a digital dashboard his office has been creating that puts an astonishing array of information in one user-friendly place.

He was clicking through the section that allows school leaders to look at suspension and discipline referrals broken down by race, disability, homeless or highly mobile status and a host of other factors when the principals stopped him.

Contrary to popular wisdom, in many schools reports of discipline peak on Thursdays, the data showed. The blip meant little to Moore, but drew a swift response from the principals.

Thursdays are when younger students in schools that use popular rewards systems learn whether they have earned enough points — or tickets, coupons, stars or what have you — to participate in end-of-the-week fun. Kids, the numbers suggested, were reacting to news that they would be excluded from the pizza party or movie hour.

The data also showed that it’s not true that discipline referrals for older students spike near holidays, as has been presumed. Rather, they jump as the end of each quarter approaches, which is the time grades go in.

The principals immediately fell to discussing whether some time-honored strategies were in fact backfiring and what to do about it. The data, Moore pointed out, would also help them track which interventions worked best with different student populations.

“They started to have a higher-level conversation,” Moore reported. “Perhaps that’s not the best way to motivate students.”

Formal agreement to end disparities

On Monday, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) formally entered into an agreement with federal civil-rights officials to end glaring racial disparities in student discipline.

Technically, the agreement approved by the school board ends an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. In practice, it’s a roadmap to how the district will begin asking the adults in the system to reconsider some bedrock beliefs about race, behavior and school culture.

The disparities are mind-boggling. Last year, MPS suspended or expelled 4,896 students: 3,801 African-Americans, 372 American Indians, 292 Latinos and 328 whites.

The reason for 95 percent of exclusions is disruptive or disorderly conduct — nonviolent behaviors for which African-American kids are most singled out. A student kept out of the classroom three times by ninth grade is virtually guaranteed not to graduate.

After several disruptive episodes, African-American, Latino and American Indian students are disproportionately tracked into special education under catchall diagnoses that include defiant or stubborn behavior. Often they are segregated into isolated classrooms or buildings.

The federal Office of Civil Rights has tracked educational equity for almost four decades. This year for the first time its database includes every school in the country and breaks data on discipline down by seven racial and ethnic categories.

Intent to crack down

Supposedly galvanized by Trayvon Martin’s killing, in the last year President Barack Obama has issued a series of orders signaling his intent to crack down on disparities in the remainder of his second term. Last winter, he announced a crackdown on inequities in school discipline.

District leaders see the agreement as an enhancement to a series of changes already under way. A year ago, the school board voted to adopt a new behavior standards policy.

Several weeks later MPS formally began working with the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership’s Solutions Not Suspensions campaign. Over the summer representatives from every school in the district began training on new strategies designed to keep students engaged and in class.

The changes will test principals, teachers, social workers, district administrators and parents. A similar effort under way in St. Paul Public Schools was the focus of a loud protest at a board meeting last spring.

MPS suspension rates by ethnic group
Source: Minneapolis Public Schools
MPS suspension rates by ethnic group

The St. Paul district a year ago told schools to stop disciplining students by sending them out of the classroom and to mainstream most special-education students. It did not do a good job of providing teachers with the tools they needed to keep students with problematic behaviors from bringing class to a halt.

A much smaller outcry was heard in September when MPS Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson announced a moratorium on suspensions of preschoolers, kindergarteners and first-graders.

Teachers concerned about support

By definition children that age are still learning how to behave in school, Johnson said. Some teachers expressed concern that they would not get support needed to keep disruptive pupils from commanding class time.

Staff buy-in is crucial. According to officials at the Minnesota Department of Education, which has been training schools on positive discipline for a decade, 85 percent of the faculty in a building must be on board for the climate to shift.

The school cooperatives that provide services to Minnesota’s neediest students, those with violent behavior or severe mental health issues, have been astonishingly effective at teaching the grown-ups in the building to elicit positive behavior.

The changes aren’t easy, however. Like most societal institutions, schools are populated by adults who likely grew up experiencing punitive discipline. And most lack alternatives to sending a child out of class.

Nor is there a single solution. Mounting research suggests that the ultimate remedy is for every student to be engaged and challenged in class, which presupposes any impediments to learning are being addressed and that they are in front of an effective and culturally responsive teacher, and in a building with a strong and positive culture.

Other federal interventions

The three-year agreement with the feds isn’t the first such agreement MPS has entered into. And it is not the only one currently seeking to help a Minnesota school district do an about-face on a systemic issue. Nor are schools the only institutions to experience federal intervention.

Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools are currently halfway into a five-year agreement with two federal agencies that commits the district to take a number of steps to protect students from harassment based on their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and to make schools safer and more welcoming.

And while parents and teachers report mixed progress in Anoka-Hennepin schools, a vocal group of community members continue to demand that the district curtail any activities or speech that affirms LGBT youth or adults.

Jim Hilbert is the executive director of the Center for Negotiation and Justice at William Mitchell College of Law and one of the architects of the landmark legal settlement of an educational adequacy suit brought by the Minneapolis NAACP in the late 1990s. The new agreement sounds like a step in the right direction, he said.

“The advantage to both the district and the Office of Civil Rights and the people affected is that this is happening now, vs. after years of legal battle,” he said. “And unlike a settlement between private parties, there is an ongoing monitoring mechanism.”

‘This is what is required’

Plus, the existence of a legal agreement with a federal authority can help leaders faced with reluctant followers: “It provides meaningful cover for the administration to go to the teachers and everyone else involved and say, ‘This is what is required.’ ”

Two decades ago, MPS entered into a similar agreement with the same U.S. agency in an attempt to curb racial disparities in students referred for special-education services. Black and brown children are still grossly overrepresented in special ed.

More famously, in the late 1960s and early 1970s police and fire departments in Minneapolis and St. Paul were the subject of consent decrees, a different kind of legal mechanism settling lawsuits seeking an end to discrimination against women and minorities.

Results, of course, have been mixed. The Minneapolis Police Department has been in national headlines this week following suggestions from a retired officer that Mayor Betsy Hodges threw gang signs. The head of the police union has backed the suggestion. The chief, who may or may not have been a collateral target, is a lesbian with Native American roots.

As in the Anoka-Hennepin settlement, the MPS agreement commits the district to collecting and reporting detailed data on school climate. With Moore’s data already illuminating opportunities for change, the work would appear to be under way.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Tim Milner on 11/12/2014 - 10:57 am.

    I have always wondered

    about the civil rights of the kids in class, the ones not being disruptive, following the rules, trying to learn. Are their civil rights being violated when the teacher is consumed trying to handle the behavioral issues of just a few? For it seems that a lot of attention (and resource) is focused on the students with problems – and maybe rightly so. But are the rest of the students being left in the lurch? Is part of our lack of overall achievement in the classroom related to the amount of time being spent on “mainstreaming” troubled kids at the expense of educating the rest of the classroom?

    It’s troubling to hear that programs used to motivate students (such as the stars) are being viewed in a negative way because some act up when they fail to achieve the reward. Are we going to negate the message of working hard to achieve a goal because a few act up when they don’t? I am seeing this mind set creeping in to the employees we hire. Showing up for work on time, doing the job as taught, working all day – that’s what leads to the paycheck they receive. Yet I am amazed when people complain that their “pay was cut” when they did not show up for work. Where is this mine set coming from? I hope not from our schools.

    The more I think about these things, I am starting to believe we are asking our schools/teachers to not just be educators, but in many ways to be surrogate parents. If that is really what is happening, I can understand better the school’s ever growing needs for additional funding. Parenting is not an easy job – it requires a lot of time and attention. And if our schools/teachers are filling this role, it goes without saying that they need far more money and resources than what we are providing.

    But that begs other questions. Is that society’s best way of spending its education dollars? Will the teachers/schools ever be able to meet that parenting need successfully?

    In my simple experiences, it seems that the kids coming from stable families (i.e. not moving every other week, having a parent (or better 2) around to care for them) seem to learn in schools. Should we be better funding the social agencies to help stabilize families so that schools have students more ready to learn? Is that a more effective use of money?

    I don’t have any answers. Maybe there aren’t any. At least clear ones. I just find it a very complex problem that always seems to focus on the rights of the small set of children rather than the collective rights of the entire classroom.

    • Submitted by Michael Friedman on 11/12/2014 - 11:49 am.

      Fallacy here

      Mr. Milner’s comment repeats a few common fallacies. It is implied that suspension helps the better behaving children. If the suspended child comes back after a day or two, and nothing else has changed (except perhaps a bit behind the work being discussed) how has that helped the situation? Why will that make the suspended child behave better in the future and thereby improve the classroom climate for all? While there are many problems with the good kids versus bad kids paradigm and the underlying assumptions that often accompany, the placement as adversaries instead of having common interests gets in the way of thoughtful revision of policies that can serve the best interest of all. Another fallacy is that teachers suspend. On the contrary, teachers remove the child from a classroom when disruptive, an act which is not controversial. It is when Administrators convert that action into longer term quarantine (suspension) as a punitive act to inspire correction that the action can be controversial. Critics have rightly questioned the benefit versus the significant harms. Adults default to punishment by extended quarantine to correct behavior only as a cultural business-as-usual but without any scientific research to support it has any corrective effect for children whose brains are only on the path to full development.

      Give MPS credit for trying to not just do what has been done before but seek something better. And better for ALL.

      • Submitted by Tim Milner on 11/12/2014 - 12:41 pm.

        I really wasn’t addressing the suspension angle

        because, as the Walla Walla article points out, I am guessing most kids get suspended to homes where there is no one there to help deal with the root issues.

        My concern is with the amount of time we expect teachers to deal with classroom behavioral problems vs the amount of time the teachers spend actually teaching. The kids acting out most likely have some (or many) other issues at the cause of that behavior. Are we really going to get at that cause by continuing to put the kid back in the same traditional classroom after a few days of suspension? I say no. Yet that seems to be what we are doing.

        So I am far less about quarantining kids and far more about finding the right place for the disruptive student. But that is probably not going to be in the same classroom. I think new solutions need to be tried.

      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/13/2014 - 03:00 pm.

        No fallacy

        I have a “better-behaved” child in a diverse school in St. Paul that has a lot of discipline issues. I expect that Mr. Milner has a similar experience or knows people who have had similar experiences, because what he says resonates with me far more than the flowery language you are using.

        “Better-behaved children” or children actually interested in being at school and learning do benefit from disruptive students being removed for the day or two suspension. Then the disruptive kids come back and the process starts over again. It isn’t at all fair to the kids who are there to learn.

        I don’t know what the answer is for these disruptive kids. But when I hear people talking about not suspending kids or putting them into special ed because the numbers are disproportionate, I cringe, because to me it means teachers spending more time dealing with unruly kids instead of teaching.

        When this article says things like “[a] student kept out of the classroom three times by ninth grade is virtually guaranteed not to graduate” I have to wonder about all of this. There is no causation with the correlation with that statistic – it isn’t the suspension that prevents kids from graduating. Kids who are unlikely to graduate also get suspended a lot.

        I know the school “reformers” don’t like to talk about poverty – which is highly correlated to poor school performance – and like to blame teachers and unions instead, but at some point you need to pay attention to what’s really going on.

  2. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 11/12/2014 - 11:22 am.

    A different approach to suspension

    I wonder if our school leaders are aware of the approach at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington. It seems like a model for all schools, involving in-school suspensions where the students get counseling to get at what it is that caused their behavior.

  3. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/12/2014 - 07:56 pm.


    How about forcing parents of disruptive kids to pay a fine? That will resolve the problem as it will give school more resources to deal with those students (including helping them) and increase parental involvement…

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/13/2014 - 07:59 am.

    Disciplinary disparities

    My own experience was that many – not all, by any means, but many – of those doing the disruption in class are coming from homes where “decorum” barely exists, if it exists at all, and that are largely defined by poverty. Demanding that the parents of those disruptive children pay a fine is a losing strategy from the get-go – if they had the money to pay the fine, the electric bill would have been paid last month, or there’d be better food on the table.

    As a letter-writer to the ‘Strib pointed out this morning, putting an artificial “cap” on suspensions for children from a particular racial or ethnic group is blatantly unconstitutional – it violates the “equal protection” clause quite clearly. That suggests to me that, if disciplinary policy can’t legally be skewed in a particular direction, there are few choices left except to deal with the disruptive behavior itself, its causes, and the remedies for both.

    That, my friends, is a major societal undertaking for which the city, the state, and the nation do not appear to be willing to make the necessary commitment. Decades after it was first suggested, socioeconomic status remains the single best predictor of academic performance, and that status hinges on income stability, family stability, behavioral norms in family and community, and a number of other factors that are – to phrase it as mildly and politely as I can – far, far beyond the influence, much less the control, of a classroom teacher, a school principal, or a district-level administrator. To expect me to transform that disruptive child’s life in a positive direction during the 5 hours a week that she’s in my classroom, while simultaneously maintaining the learning pace and environment of her 25 or 30 classmates is delusional. To punish me by labeling me a “poorly performing” teacher for failing to work that miracle on a daily basis with dozens of equally-deprived children is sadistic at best.

    With all the hand-wringing – justifiable though it may be – over black versus white suspension rates in Minneapolis and/or St. Paul schools, it seems worthwhile to examine suspension rates between and among black and white students in more affluent suburban communities. The metro area is distressingly segregated by both race and income (the latter doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves), but surely there are students of color in at least some suburban schools. Is their rate of disruptive behavior and/or suspension similar to that of students of color in the Twin Cities? If so, it would tell us something worth knowing. If not, it would also tell us something worth knowing, though in a different way.

  5. Submitted by James Scanlan on 12/02/2014 - 02:57 pm.

    Measuring discipline disparities

    There exists a universal perception, promoted by the Departments of Education and Justice, that relaxing standards and generally reducing discipline rates will reduce relative racial/ethnic differences in suspensions and expulsions. Exactly the opposite is the case. Generally reducing discipline rates, while tending to reduce relative differences in rates of avoiding discipline, tends to increase relative differences in discipline rates. See references 1 to 5. Recent reductions in discipline rates in both Minneapolis and St. Paul have been accompanied by increased relative differences in discipline rates. See references 6 and 7.

    Data cannot illuminate issues unless observers understand how to interpret data.

    1. “Race and Mortality Revisited,” Society (July/Aug. 2014)

    2. “It’s easy to misunderstand gaps and mistake good fortune for a crisis,” Minneapolis StarTribune (Feb. 8, 2014)

    3. “Things government doesn’t know about racial disparities,” The Hill (Jan. 28, 2014).

    4. “The Paradox of Lowering Standards,” Baltimore Sun (Aug. 5, 2013)

    5. “Misunderstanding of Statistics Leads to Misguided Law Enforcement Policies,” Amstat News (Dec. 2012)



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