Long suspensions might be aggravating the problem in Anoka-Hennepin schools.
The Anoka-Hennepin School District is revising the way it disciplines students for fighting, aiming to rein in what can be an escalating cycle of fighting and punishment.
Until now, secondary school students involved in a fight for the first time generally have received the full recommended 10-day suspension. A second offense results in expulsion, which usually means a temporary stay at the district's Compass Programs, designed to get students back on track in their academics and behavior.
As of Thursday, the district reported that 155 students at its 12 high schools and middle schools had been suspended for fighting during this school year.
The question, said Jeff McGonigal, associate superintendent for high schools, is whether the length of the suspensions helps to prevent future problems or perhaps causes new ones by keeping students out of class.
"Those numbers are high, and I'm not quite sure the impact of days six, seven, eight and nine," he said. "It's a negative impact on their education. ... One of the most important factors of getting an education is being in school."
Starting in the fall, principals have been instructed to start with a five-day suspension and add days, if necessary, for aggravating factors, such as if a student clearly is the aggressor or instigator or if there is a record of bullying or harassment. Then, when students return, they'll work with school social workers or other support staff to identify and change the behaviors that got them there in the first place. Parents are encouraged to be part of the readmission process.
Greg Cole, principal of the district's Compass Programs, will oversee the suspensions and help to ensure that discipline is being meted out consistently from school to school.
The district is aiming to reduce the academic impact of the discipline, and to land on a more effective means of preventing future problems.
The district's reasoning is supported by the Minnesota Department of Education, which noted in a report last fall that students who are suspended generally have lower rates of academic achievement, are more likely to drop out and are more likely to continue to get into trouble.
In 2009-10, the most recent year for which figures are available from the state, more than 52,500 students were suspended from Minnesota public schools, for a variety of offenses. The result was more than 110,000 missed instructional days.
In the Anoka-Hennepin district, the social workers "will help the student track how did you end up where you were, and did you get what you wanted from that strategy? Most students would say no," McGonigal said. "The social worker will be able to sit down with them and say that's not what you wanted? What's a better strategy?"
Cole, who often works with students who have gotten into trouble at school, said most are receptive to getting help thinking through their actions and evaluating what got them into trouble.
"It's a rare student that digs in so deeply that they will tell you, 'If the same thing happens I'm going to do it again. I don't care what anybody says,'" he said. "More often than not, kids don't really want to fight, but I think they feel a social pressure once they've been called out or challenged or disrespected, to defend their pride more than their physical safety."
The role of the social worker is a result of Superintendent Dennis Carlson's recent push to address student mental health in the district, McGonigal said.
Each middle and high school will have at least a part-time social worker or another mental health professional on staff; they could share time between middle and high schools in a single geographic area, for consistency among siblings at different schools.
Many districts reassessing
Many school districts are reassessing their suspension policies, said Eric Kloos supervisor in the Special Education division of the Minnesota Department of Education.
"In the same way that attendance is very important, people are becoming very tuned into that," he said. "They are revising suspension and removal from instruction, especially when it's for longer periods of time."
In the long run, he said, prevention and efforts to lay out positive behavioral expectations work much better.
"The bottom line is we can't have kids fighting to solve any kind of conflict," he said. "We have an obligation to work with them to develop other methods for resolving conflict, which is very challenging. It's hard to do, but absolutely possible."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409