Many schools, locally and nationally, are beginning to show reductions in school suspension rates. That’s because, in recent years, more attention has been focused on racial disparities in suspensions and on the fact that kicking a student out of school often does more long-term harm than good.
Yet St. Paul schools, while enjoying an overall reduction, saw a sharp increase in suspensions for one age group in the first three quarters of 2013-14. Suspensions among middle school kids — grades 6-8 — rose from 673 the previous year to 1,066 this year, up 58 percent.
That troubling trend must be addressed. The middle grades are the point at which many families decide whether to keep their children in traditional public schools or to seek an alternative. Too much disruptive, unruly behavior in classrooms and halls can drive students away from public schools.
A group of five St. Paul teachers was concerned that district policies to reduce suspensions, combined with a change in the configuration of middle schools and the mainstreaming of more special education students, have produced more problem behavior. In a statement to the board, they asked that the administration take steps such as withholding recess from misbehaving students and requiring after school detention for others.
As is true in most urban districts, African-American students in St. Paul are more likely to be suspended and placed in special education. Yet research has shown that black students do not misbehave at higher rates than other students. But minority kids are suspended more often, for less serious and more subjective infractions, and with more serious consequences. In too many cases, suspension only increases the already-wide learning disparities among student groups.
Many Minnesota schools have been working on the issue with some success. In May, the Minnesota Department of Education recognized 30 schools for sustained, successful use of Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS), a research-based approach that provides schools with training and support in managing students with challenging behaviors. Since 2005, PBIS has been used in 478 Minnesota schools.
Among those lauded for excellence were metro-area suburban schools and some outstate schools. There were no schools from the metro area’s three largest school districts on this year’s list, though they also have been involved in the state program.
Still, officials in the Anoka-Hennepin and Minneapolis districts say their suspension rates have dropped in recent years. Minneapolis data show that in 2011-12, there were 3,886 suspensions involving 3,040 students. During the school year ending in June, there were 3,751 suspensions involving 2,787 students.
In Anoka-Hennepin, between 2011 and last year, the out-of-school suspension rate dropped from nearly 5.5 percent to 5.2 percent of the student population of about 39,000.
School leaders there say that they changed their approach to discipline and that they now spend more time talking with students to get ahead of behavior problems. The district also has an in-school suspension center where kids who have been disruptive go to continue their classwork.
In St. Paul, Superintendent Valeria Silva has wisely convened a group of teachers, parents, students and community members to be part of a project called Solutions in Action. They will begin meeting on Thursday with the goal of developing ways to meet student learning needs and reduce disruptive behavior.
The group should look to other districts that have made progress. Building relationships with kids and better understanding their issues can be challenging, labor-intensive work — but it is well worth the investment. Students who care about school and how they behave there are significantly less likely to become chronic truants or run afoul of the juvenile-justice system — or become adult offenders.
Addressing early signs of behavior problems in school is critical, not just for the individual student or for other kids in the class, but for the whole community.