Gone are the days when students who smuggled pot to school in backpacks or duked it out in lunchroom brawls were routinely expelled.

Student expulsions are penalties of the past for many schools. Mounds View hasn't expelled a student since the 1970s. Minneapolis may refer more than 100 students for expulsions annually, but it hasn't expelled any in years. Even the state's largest student expeller — Anoka-Hennepin — has cut its expulsion rates by more than half since the 2010-11 school year.

Statewide, student expulsions have fallen by half over the past few years. It's all part of a nationwide push to find different approaches to discipline. Instead of kicking kids out, schools are using a variety of alternatives that may send students out of a particular building but keep them somewhere in the system — transferring them to other schools in the district, moving them to alternative centers or sending them home with a tutor.

"It's a better way to deal with behavior," said Eric Melbye, an assistant superintendent for Bloomington schools, where misbehaving students are given instruction at home. "You're not just focusing on the punishment; you're focusing on, 'How do we support, if we can, or help the family and the student?' "

But even as these methods gain favor, they are also facing criticism. Opponents of disciplinary transfers call them Band-Aid fixes to larger problems and argue that transfers under the threat of expulsion steal the due process that a formal expulsion guarantees.

"A great many expulsions are conducted illegally," said Andrea Jepsen, an attorney at the School Law Center in St. Paul who has represented students in expulsion hearings. "Children take the option of administratively transferring, and their families, because they believe it's the only option they have, because that's what schools represent to them."

Federal push for options

Expellable offenses vary by district and can include instances of the worst behavior: fighting, hazing, bringing weapons to school or making threats. The Obama administration has pushed schools to rethink expulsions, backed by nationwide data revealing that black students are expelled much more often than white students.

In addition, the Minnesota Department of Education finds that the alternatives may be more effective than kicking kids out of school.

Usually, St. Paul relies on administrative transfers and alternative programs — and reserves expulsions for the most egregious offenses, said St. Paul schools' chief officer of engagement Jackie Turner. The schools hadn't expelled a student since the 2009-10 school year before this year when it had five expulsions, triggered by highly publicized incidents of student violence.

In Minneapolis, school officials may look to transfer a student for offenses that wouldn't qualify for expulsion when there are significant safety issues that a school can't handle, said Minneapolis schools' general counsel Amy Moore.

Some parents have appealed transfers, and their students have been able to stay in their current schools, Moore said.

That's not usually the case in Osseo, a district where it's rare that parents don't green-light their students' new locations.

"Usually, the parents are so happy that you don't want to kick their student out of school, even if they don't like the placement," said district spokeswoman Barb Olson.

Students don't have any say in their new location, she said.

Bloomington transfers its bigger behavior problems — about seven per school year — into at-home education, which the district feels is preferable to an expulsion. Students work with a tutor, with a return to school waiting at the end of the school year, Melbye said.

The process avoids expulsion hearings that would include attorneys and hearing officers and can be time-consuming and costly for districts and families, Melbye said.

In Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest school district, the drop in student expulsion rates points to better use of behavior intervention strategies, said Greg Cole, an administrator with districtwide responsibility for discipline. The district's Compass Programs serve students who have been expelled, and a majority of students choose that option. Most eventually re-enroll at their home schools.

Results: A mixed bag

The results of alternatives to expulsion range from success stories to failures as districts refine their tactics.

Tracking transfers nationally proves impossible. Some schools like Minneapolis call the process administrative transfers; others call them involuntary transfers. And not every school uses the process.

Results are also not widely quantified. In Minneapolis, a 2015 survey of administrators showed that about half the participants believed students generally did better after a transfer. A few said they didn't.

In St. Paul, Turner said transfers work for the majority of students who get a fresh start.

Cristin Murphy, now a Roseville special education teacher, saw more transfers than expulsions at a charter school where she once worked. She wondered how dropping students into a new school would help their behavior.

"Is that helping the student? No," she said. "But is the expulsion in general helping the student? No."

The transfer process might not hit the root of the problem, said Dan Stewart, an attorney at the Minnesota Disability Law Center in Minneapolis. He said that some parents argue that a move from one school to another isn't addressing student needs and doesn't prevent recurring behavior.

One of Minnesota's most famous cases involved Rogers High School senior Reid Sagehorn. In 2014, Sagehorn posted a two-word affirmative response to a tweet questioning whether he'd made out with a teacher. He said it was a joke and sued the school district, claiming he was forced to withdraw from Rogers High to avoid expulsion to save his early college admission. In December he settled with the district and city for $425,000.

Others say transfers are mutual agreements that can work.

Ninth-grader Devante Hicks transferred into Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul a couple of months ago. His mother, Christine Hicks, says she's already seeing the positive effects of the transfer.

Devante was transferred out of Johnson Senior High School in St. Paul after running with the wrong crowd there, Hicks said — a conclusion both she and the administration came to after she received phone calls every other day from the school about her son. At his new school, Devante is doing better.

"It helped me and helped him," she said.

Beena Raghavendran • 612-673-4569