Facing federal scrutiny, Minneapolis schools are considering revisions to a discipline policy that is intended to keep order in classrooms but has imposed heavier penalties on black and American Indian students, especially boys and special education students.
The first revision in 10 years — and the fifth in the past 30 — comes before the school board Tuesday night. It places a new emphasis on measures designed to address the behavior of disruptive students while keeping them in school. Chief among them are restorative conversations, which bring together a student who has acted out and those affected by the actions. They’re aimed at talking out issues to reknit the offending student with a classroom.
District data show that suspensions start young, with almost 50 kindergartners suspended last year, and peak in the turbulent years of late middle school before ebbing somewhat in high school. Black students were suspended at a rate more than five times that of white students in 2012 and Indian students at a rate four times higher than whites. And when they’re suspended, black and Indian students are barred from school for an average of one day longer than Asian, Latino or white students.
Those patterns have drawn the attention of federal civil rights officials, who audited records for 11 district schools, according to school board member Richard Mammen. He said the district is waiting for a federal determination.
Figures from Mammen, who is pushing for zero suspensions, to teacher union President Lynn Nordgren, to parent and frequent board critic Ralph Crowder, say how the policy is put into practice will be key in making any progress.
Crowder is skeptical that a new policy will produce different results. “It’s bigger than a policy,” he said in an interview last week. “You’re dealing with systemic issues at the school level that the administration is either fearful to deal with or out of touch with.”
Although statistically more students of color come to school with the stressors of poverty and homelessness, Associate Superintendent Michael Thomas said they can still be held accountable for school norms. One key, he said, is staff that make an effort to understand those stresses and can work through them to find what’s behind a behavior.
“Getting to that helps problem-solve instead of just punish, punish, punish,” Thomas said. Another is understanding the behavioral norms of a culture so that students acting contrary to school rules but within their cultural norms get more repeated and intensive teaching about what’s acceptable in classrooms, rather than using the default of suspension.
Restorative sessions can also be used, sometimes as part of regular class circles, or other administrative actions taken as an alternative to suspension. Those temporary actions can include assigning a student to another classroom at the same elementary grade, or at an older level, placing disruptive students in separate rooms with a staffer.