The issue of out-of-school suspensions (unlike in-school suspensions, during which children still learn) remains newsworthy for the Minneapolis school board. Last September, in light of the vast racial disparities in suspensions, then-Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson placed a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions for nonviolent offenses for pre-K through first grade.
When a multiracial group of concerned citizens from faith communities met with interim Superintendent Michael Goar and his staff in May, we heard one piece of very good news and two unsettling updates. First, the number of suspensions dropped by nearly 50 percent during the 2014-15 school year. However, the number of suspensions had declined more for white students than for children of color, so the racial discrepancy has actually widened.
Second, we were informed that in the past school year, there were 115 out-of-school suspensions of kindergartners and first-graders — shockingly high when we are talking about 5- to 7-year-olds. Moreover, the overall school system statistics show that 1 percent of white children were suspended, in contrast with 10 percent of African-American children.
I write as a person of faith and as a white male educator with passions for teaching and for justice. We white Minnesotans should be every bit as appalled by these figures as people of color. We all are indicted when our system is not fair to everyone, when a portion of our young citizenry is not in school and is not developing the skills needed to be contributing members of our society, when any portion of our community is not able to reach its God-given potential because of systemic problems.
Do those of us who are well-served by the status quo somehow not see, feel and experience children of color as our own? My stomach churns when my neighbor’s children do not get the same privileges that are granted my own. We can do better, Minneapolis, but the superintendent and the school board must make this a priority. Indeed, equity and out-of-school suspensions need to have primacy in allocation of resources and in decisions about hiring a superintendent.
One problem with out-of-school suspensions is that this practice is mistakenly understood to be a form of discipline. In reality, it is not discipline at all; it is merely a punitive approach to social control, and it does not even achieve that effectively.
Discipline involves channeling a person’s energies, talents and skills to master a competency or become a responsible and contributing group member. One cannot be an extraordinary athlete or great violinist without discipline. I certainly could not have been a competitive high-jumper or have finished a doctoral degree without discipline. Those of us in faith communities know that disciplines of the spirit (e.g., daily meditation) are also necessary for a rich spiritual life. In short, discipline is a form of learning. To be effective, discipline must become internalized; it cannot be imposed from outside and cannot be punitive in nature. One does not learn meditation under duress or complete a Ph.D. by external coercion. Discipline, if it is to be effective, channels a person to self-discipline.
Suspensions are more than a mere consequence of other factors; they act as a powerful cause in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Discipline becomes self-discipline only when it is internalized and respects the person being disciplined. Restorative justice practices, for that reason, are far more effective approaches to self-discipline and to long-term learning.
Some assert that high numbers of suspensions in schools are simply a symptom of other problems. This is a serious mistake, for suspensions are more than a mere consequence of other factors; they act as a powerful cause in the school-to-prison pipeline. As Mary Ellen Flannery wrote in NEA Today: “A suspension can be life altering. It is the number-one predictor — more than poverty — of whether children will drop out of school, and walk down a road that includes greater likelihood of unemployment, reliance on social-welfare programs, and imprisonment.” When kids are out of school, they fall further behind in their learning and develop labels that shape self-identity. Suspensions, then, damage the spirit.
Other options than out-of-school suspensions are not only available, they are more effective in creating an engaging learning environment. It is time to solve this problem with new approaches.
Keith A. Roberts, of Minneapolis, is a professor emeritus of sociology and a volunteer with ISAIAH, an organization working for racial and economic equity in Minnesota.