A kindergartner in Minneapolis Public Schools got suspended last school year for playing with ChapStick and then fleeing the classroom after being told to stop. Another student was suspended for climbing over a railing. One student was sent home for refusing to follow directions.

None of these suspensions should have happened under a new moratorium that banned such discipline for kindergartners and first-graders who commit nonviolent offenses. But 50 times over the past school year, administrators ignored the rule and sent students home for disruptive behavior, according to a Star Tribune review of suspension records.

Former Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson implemented the suspension ban, in part to address federal scrutiny over a dramatic disparity in discipline between white students and students of color. But the disparity actually got much worse in the past year.

School officials said they did the best they could during a tumultuous year with many demands.

The district faced a leadership shake-up that left interim Superintendent Michael Goar to deal with a significant budget shortfall, pressure to increase student achievement and hundreds of layoffs in the district’s central office. Despite the challenges, administrators said they are committed to fixing the discipline problem, but it takes time to implement such a massive change.

“Can we guarantee that because the superintendent says that something is going to happen that it will happen in every situation, boy I wish we could,” said Susanne Griffin, the district’s chief academic officer.

Late Friday, the district announced it will expand the disciplinary ban, ending suspensions for nonviolent behavior for all elementary school students. The announcement came more than a week after the Star Tribune’s inquiry into the suspensions records.

Minneapolis has faced intense scrutiny over its suspension practices, joining a growing list of urban school districts across the country that are taking new and sometimes unprecedented steps to solve disparities in discipline. Seattle schools just imposed a similar one-year suspension ban, citing Minneapolis’ policy as a model.

Parents pull out students

School districts make these changes as they face skeptical advocates and parents who are increasingly pulling out their students and sending them to suburban and charter schools.

“This is what we’ve come to expect from Minneapolis Public Schools,” said Kenneth Eban of Students for Education Reform, a group that is advocating for zero suspensions. “They make a promise. They say they are going to do something, and then we see that it was not carried out in complete faith.”

Goar noted that the overall number of suspensions has gone down, and that the district is looking seriously at the issue of discipline for its youngest students.

Former Superintendent Johnson unveiled the moratorium at the beginning of the last school year. Then in November, she announced a resolution with the federal Office of Civil Rights, an agreement in which the district promised to reduce the disparity in disciplinary practices.

For several years, federal officials were investigating Minneapolis schools after allegations that administrators suspended black students for behavior that white students were not sent home for.

The district also pledged to slash the suspension disparity by a quarter over the course of the school year. District data shows, however, that black students are now 12 times more likely to be suspended than white students, 50 percent worse than before the settlement was announced.

Before leaving office, Johnson pledged to have her office review all suspensions to get a better handle on why they were happening. She also wanted to see if there were any patterns emerging in which teachers and administrators were most likely to send kids home. “We should not be putting students out of school for behaviors that they do naturally at that age,” she said at the time.

Johnson had faced stiff opposition from some teachers and administrators who said the moratorium would make it difficult to remove unruly kids. They worried that suspension restrictions would empower students bent on disrupting class.

In a recent interview, Johnson said school officials need to refocus on reducing the disciplinary disparities. She urged school officials to expand the suspension moratorium to all elementary grades, a move that would put more pressure on teachers and administrators to find other options for unruly students.

“We have to say, ‘This is not an option,’ ” she said. “What are our consequences for adults making those suspensions?”

Nonprofit blames Goar

Leaders with Isaiah, a nonprofit that has also advocated for zero suspensions, have focused the blame squarely on Goar, who wants the superintendent job permanently.

“It takes time, but if the head of the district doesn’t declare a will to do this, I’m not sure how it’s going to be done,” said Carol Markham-Cousins, a former principal of Washburn High School who has also worked on the district’s discipline policies.

Carla Bates, a school board member, disputes that the superintendent is solely responsible. She said parents, teachers, principals, associate superintendents and the board all shoulder the responsibility.

“The superintendent and the administration started that conversation, saying don’t use suspension, we are putting a moratorium. Now apparently we need to have that conversation again and more forcefully,” Bates said.

Before the announcement of an expanded moratorium, Bates was considering a push for a more formal policy to ban suspensions for certain grade levels.

“That way it’s not going to matter who is the superintendent,” she said. It would be “a policy the district must follow.”

District officials said they are making progress and imposing better systems for logging and tracking suspensions. And they are trying to maintain the tough standards that Johnson wanted when she announced the ban.

New this year, principals who want to suspend a student in prekindergarten through first-grade must consult an associate superintendent before they can send the child home.

“The commitment from the superintendent has been, and continues to be, that we are not suspending kids for walking out of the classroom with ChapStick,” Griffin said. “The fact that somebody suspended a kid, that’s a problem.”

In other ways, the suspension ban and tougher scrutiny on all suspensions has had an impact. The ban only applied to nonviolent behavior for kindergartners and first-graders, so administrators could still suspend the youngest students for violent offenses.

Total suspensions in those grades dropped by 64 percent, from 342 in 2014 to 123 last year, with 50 being nonviolent. The district saw a 34 percent reduction in total suspensions in all grades compared to 2014.

Not changing policies

While overall suspensions are trending downward, school officials are concerned that largest drop was in suspensions of white students.

Of the 1,925 students who received at least one suspension in 2015, 78 percent of them were black. There were 129 white students who were suspended, or 6 percent. In 2014, 2,768 students were suspended. Of those, 2,041 were black and 235 were white, or 8 percent.

“Clearly, nobody has a magic wand they can wave,” said Michael Thomas, who oversees the district’s associate superintendents. “But our attempts will continue. There is no wavering from one leader to the next.”


Graph and chart sources: Minneapolis Public Schools. Table of descriptions includes only a selection of suspensions.