Minneapolis public school officials are making dramatic changes to their discipline practices by requiring the superintendent’s office to review all suspensions of students of color.
The change comes amid intensifying scrutiny of the way Minneapolis public schools treat minority students and in the wake of new data showing black students are 10 times more likely to be sent home than white students.
Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said she wants to “disrupt that in any way that I can.”
“The only way I can think of doing that is to take those suspensions back to the individuals and try and probe and ask questions,” Johnson said Friday.
The new policy will be implemented as the district approves a settlement with the U.S. Department of Education, which was investigating the district over its inconsistent suspension treatment for black students.
Far too often school officials are suspending students of color for a behavior that doesn’t lead to suspensions for white students, Johnson said.
Beginning Monday, every proposed suspension of black, Hispanic or American Indian students that does not involve violent behavior will first be reviewed by Johnson or someone on her leadership team.
The school district is also reducing its police presence at its schools after finding inconsistencies and questions in how schools used police in disciplinary matters.
This is the district’s latest attempt to reduce suspensions of minority students. Earlier this year, Johnson placed a moratorium on suspensions of pre-kindergarteners, kindergartners and first-graders.
The superintendent banned the suspensions after a Star Tribune report showed dramatic growth in the number of the youngest students being sent home.
The moratorium has helped reduce overall suspensions by 50 percent, Johnson said. She remains committed to completely eliminating the racial suspension gap by 2018.
“Changing the trajectory for our students of color is a moral and ethical imperative, and our actions must be drastically different to achieve our goal of closing the achievement gap by 2020,” Johnson said.
Some community leaders who have closely watched the suspension disparities welcomed the new policy, but called for stricter changes.
“In the long term, that is not the solution,” said Marika Pfefferkorn, with the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership. “The way to stop disproportionately is to do a moratorium.”
The organization has been working with the district to help create its new expectations for student behavioral standards. Pfefferkorn said she wants to see the district mandate training in cultural competency for staff and support a moratorium for all elementary school suspensions.
Some teachers and principals have previously been critical of across-the-board bans, saying that they force teachers to contend with disruptive students who are jeopardizing the learning experience for all students. Oftentimes, they say, the children have untreated mental health or behavioral issues that can make learning difficult for other students.
Johnson said she continues to work with principals and other school leaders to come up with solutions short of sending kids home. Principals have already been asking Johnson if she would be “grilling” them when reviewing proposed suspensions.
“No, it’s a conversation,” Johnson said.
As part of the broader settlement, the district will be required for the next three years to report its progress on reducing suspensions for students of color to the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. The district will present that agreement at Monday’s school board meeting.
The district also has agreed to increase staff, create a more robust data system, clearly define its suspension policy and increase community and student engagement. The district estimates making those changes will cost about $5 million.
District officials said they have already implemented most of the new federal requirements outlined in the agreement.
School resource officers
One of those requirements is for the district to thoroughly re-evaluate its school resource officer system.
There are currently 16 school resource officers, all of whom are Minneapolis police officers, spread out across the district’s high schools, middle schools and some elementary schools. It also contracts with nine part-time police officers.
The district plans to reduce the school resource officers to seven within four years and completely eliminate the part-time officer positions next school year.
Jason Matlock, the district’s director of Emergency Management Safety and Security, said school safety has been handled in a “very inconsistent matter.” Critics have called it part of a school-to-prison pipeline that they are trying to break.
The district debated eliminating all officers but said that would put too much of a safety burden on school staff. The district also considered creating its own police department but said it was too costly and went against the more nurturing culture that the district is trying to establish.
“This will create a safer and more welcoming environment,” Matlock said.