Minneapolis public schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has banned the suspension of the district's youngest learners, a unilateral move aimed at keeping children in class and forcing teachers to dole out discipline in school.

"We should not be putting students out of school for behaviors that they do naturally at that age," Johnson said. "When students are out of schools, they cannot learn."

Johnson notified principals and teachers Thursday afternoon that prekindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade students cannot be suspended for nonviolent behavior. The change takes effect immediately.

Leaders with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers said there are better options than deciding "by rote how a student will or will not be disciplined." Rather than a blanket edict from the administration, the union continues to press for "counselors and mental health providers to be available in schools for students who may need them," said Lynn Nord­gren, the union's president.

Minneapolis is among a growing number of districts across the country that are changing suspension practices in the face of new and intense scrutiny of student discipline. Critics argue that suspension data shows teachers overwhelmingly target — and harm — ­children of color or with mental health problems.

The moratorium comes after the Star Tribune reported in August that suspensions for kindergartners through fourth-graders jumped 32 percent, from 889 to 1,175, in the past year. The increase stood in stark contrast to the other grades; overall suspensions were down 10 percent for the year.

The new data came as Minneapolis schools are being investigated by civil rights officials in the U.S. Department of Education over inconsistent suspension practices.

Other districts around the state are also struggling with how to lower suspension rates while keeping unruly behavior in check.

In St. Paul, district officials gave principals financial incentives to reduce suspensions. That led to large drops in suspensions, but growing complaints from parents and teachers who say student behavior has worsened.

Minneapolis' new rules for its youngest students has given rise to worries that the change will not help ensure troubled children get the resources they need to address their behavioral issues.

"It's great that there is a moratorium, but what steps do they have in place to handle those behaviors or figure out why they are happening?" asked Renelle Nelson at the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights. "It's a great first step, but what are they going to do instead?"

Johnson said teachers and school staff will still have resources available to deal with students who are putting others in danger. Referrals to mental health services for students who have perpetual behavior problems also will be available.

Last school year, Minneapolis schools had 333 suspensions for kindergartners and first-graders, about 7 percent of all suspensions. The vast majority of children were sent home for disorderly and insubordinate behavior, a catchall category that can range from children tearing things off walls to throwing chairs. Schools logged no suspensions for prekindergartners.

The suspension moratorium will hit hardest some of the district's poorest schools, where classrooms have many of the newest teachers and students have among the lowest test scores.

In north Minneapolis, Lucy Craft Laney Community School's suspensions went from five to 36 in the past year.

Bethune Community School doubled suspensions for kindergartners and first-graders over the same period, from 26 to 54.

For some schools, like Loring Community School, the moratorium will not be difficult. That school only had one suspension of kindergarten and first-graders each of the past two years.

Susanne Griffin, the district's chief academic officer, said those schools that did not suspend students in those grade levels can help share information with those that have struggled to keep suspension numbers low.

"They already know what to do with our youngest learners," Griffin said. "It's about learning from the experts in our own community about what works with our kids."

For school administrators, multiple suspensions for the same student often signals a need for mental health resources.

Richard Mammen, the district's board chairman, applauded Johnson for the decision, saying this was "another important step toward changing the culture" at the district.

"The superintendent is putting a stake in the ground," Mammen said in a statement. "Our youngest students need to be in class. Their first school experiences can have a huge impact on their engagement in the learning process throughout their lives."

The district has already been working with principals and teachers to create new behavior standards that establish clear definitions for what constitutes disruptive and disorderly behavior. Mildly unruly behavior should be redirected, and only the most extreme behavior, such as drug possession or assault, should lead to suspensions.

"The support of the board with the implementation of our behavior standards has positioned us well to do this now," Griffin said.

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028