A year after a public flap over a surge in suspensions of black students, suspensions have dropped by nearly one-third in the St. Paul Public Schools so far this school year.

But some teachers contend that while rates have dropped, student behavior hasn’t necessarily improved, and in some cases, has worsened.

“Students have now caught on that suspensions are rare even for serious offenses,” said Aaron Benner, a fifth-grade teacher who spoke out last year about suspensions.

This year, the district took a significant step to erase racial inequities and keep students in class by removing “continual willful disobedience” from the list of suspendable violations in the 2012-13 student handbook. The district also is making bonus pay available to principals who lower their suspension numbers.

The use of willful disobedience or defiance as a grounds for suspension has been criticized locally and nationally as a subjective catchall that disproportionately affects minority students. Critics charge that suspendable acts — assaults, drug possession or racial violence, for example, all spelled out in the St. Paul handbook — should be clear cut.

At St. Paul Federation of Teachers headquarters, union President Mary Cathryn Ricker said that she’s heard varied opinions from teachers as to whether the push to lower suspension rates has improved classroom behaviors. Some see it as a genuine effort to improve the school environment, she said, while others say it’s hiding work that needs to be done about disruptive acts.

Some students have weighed in on how safe they feel at school. Nick Faber, a veteran science teacher, surveyed third- through sixth-graders at his school about bullying and school safety. Nearly one-fourth said they felt “kind of not safe” or “not safe at all” at school, he said. Nearly two-thirds reported having been pushed or shoved at least once in the previous week. Teachers need professional development to help kids who’ve had trauma and chronic stress, and district administrators ought to put more resources there, rather than simply saying, “stop suspending,” Faber said.

“We can’t teach kids that are sent out of the room or suspended, so that’s the last thing we want,” he said. “But we also can’t teach in a chaotic learning environment.”

Seeking a cause

St. Paul’s suspension issue flared in 2011-12 when it was reported that the suspensions of black students had spiked after five years of declines and Benner followed it up with the unusual step — for a teacher — of speaking against district policy at a school board meeting.

Benner, who is black, said that efforts to frame the issue as one of racial bias is “setting these kids up for failure.”

Through the first three quarters of the 2012-13 school year, suspensions of black students fell by 30 percent, compared with a 26 percent decline for white students and a 30 percent drop overall. About 8 percent of the district’s black students were suspended in that time, down from 11 percent in the first three quarters of 2011-12, but still five times the percentage of white students who’ve been suspended this year.

Administrators say that they have the “changed the conversation” about suspensions to say: We want students in the classroom, and if a suspension is not a recommended outcome for a specific misstep, attention must be focused on what causes a student to misbehave, and to finding ways to resolve it.

“The thing we haven’t done is to keep trying to keep students in the classroom,” said Sharon Freeman, a district elementary assistant superintendent.

Jocelyn Sims, who was principal this year at Battle Creek Middle School and who supports district directives on the issue, acknowledged that finding the cause of ongoing unruly behavior “is not easy; this takes a lot of time.” But that purposeful approach has paid off, she said, with suspensions dropping year to year at her school. (She did not have numbers available.) Sims added that the school set out this year to reduce the number of times black students are removed from a classroom by 10 percent per month, “and we’ve blown that out of the water.”

Benner said he’d prefer that suspensions be taken off the table altogether as an option, but that there still be clear consequences for disruptive behavior. In his classroom, he said, students pay by writing extra sentences or by sitting out “Friday Fun” activities or the ultimate punishment: “No football with me for a week,” he said.

When students see certain behaviors are ignored or treated in different ways by administrators, Benner said, “you have a problem that is hard to contain.”

The district’s decision to introduce bonus pay for principals who lower suspensions raises questions about whether teachers might feel pressure to hold back on referring students for possibly disciplinary action. Michelle Walker, the district’s chief of staff, said suspension reductions are just one part of the performance pay equation, with student achievement having the greatest weight.

But should the two be linked at all? Freeman answered that it’s one way to help in the overall effort: “If students are not at school, they can’t learn.”


Staff Writer Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report.