Suspensions jumped dramatically for Minneapolis public schoolchildren in kindergarten to fourth grade last year, even as school officials faced mounting criticism over inconsistency in doling out punishment.

The Minneapolis School District is facing intense scrutiny from the federal government over its suspension practices, particularly for sending minority children home at dramatically higher rates than white children.

Suspending kindergartners and other young children is "outrageous," said attorney Amy Goetz, of the School Law Center.

This district "has been doing this for many years," Goetz said. "This is nothing new to them, nor is the concern about the over-identification of kids of color and kids of disabilities."

The district's overall suspension record decreased nearly 10 percent for the 2013-2014 school year, but total suspensions increased by 32 percent for kindergarten to fourth grade, from 889 to 1,175.

Last year's suspension data show black students in the district are four times more likely to get suspended compared with white students. Special education students and American Indians were the next most likely to get suspended.

The data show that the city's youngest students were often sent home for the day after disorderly or insubordinate behavior, a catchall category that district officials say can range from children tearing things off walls to throwing chairs.

For kindergartners, more than 60 percent of the suspensions were for disorderly or insubordinate behavior, the Star Tribune found. At the Anishinabe Academy, 90 percent of kindergarten suspensions were for disruptive behavior.

School officials recognize there is a problem and, under the eye of the federal government, are taking steps to correct it.

Last week, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and her team presented a new strategic plan that aims to even out suspension rates for all groups within six years.

Sheridan International reduced its suspensions by 39 percent last year compared with the previous year, from 120 to 73. Suspensions in kindergarten went from 21 to seven.

Albert Pitt, the principal at Sheridan, said kindergartners are suspended only in extreme cases. Suspensions of kindergartners in his schools occurred after a child destroyed a classroom or, in one instance, was acting so disruptively that all the other children had to be removed.

"Unfortunately, some of our students come in with undiagnosed mental health issues, and that is something that I think across the board is popping up more and more," Pitt said.

Suspensions in kindergarten often trigger referrals to mental and behavioral health services.

The data obtained by the Star Tribune represent the total number of suspensions in the district, meaning some students may have multiple suspensions.

Suspensions for the same grade levels at the Anishinabe Academy, which primarily serves American Indian children, more than doubled last year compared with the 2012-2013 school year, from 45 to 116.

Federal civil rights officials in the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation last year after they audited records for 11 district schools. District attorneys say the investigation is ongoing.

Along with mounting concern from teachers and parents, the district is revisiting its discipline policy for the first time in 10 years.

Board Chair Richard Mammen said the increase in suspensions is concerning, and the district will use those numbers as a baseline to track if the new policy is working.

"We will see further reductions overall, but in particular in elementary schools," he said.

Disruptive, disorderly

Suspensions for fifth to 12th grade decreased by 19 percent districtwide in the 2013-2014 school year, from 4,091 to 3,294.

The majority of overall suspensions, 30 percent, occurred after a student acted in a disruptive, disorderly or insubordinate manner, according to data obtained by the Star Tribune.

There were 139 total suspensions for kindergarten, about 3 percent of total suspensions. Although the numbers are low, researchers and critics across the country have questioned whether children in the early grades should ever be suspended, particularly at schools where a larger percentage of students are homeless or lack stable housing.

Susanne Griffin, the district's chief academic officer, said the district is working on identifying schools like Anishinabe that may need additional resources.

"Every two weeks, we'll be looking at our data and we'll be present and ask the school what they need from us so we can help," Griffin said.

Griffin said school leaders should also learn from each other. She wants schools that have been able to reduce suspensions to share ideas with those that are struggling.

The principal of Anishinabe could not be reached for comment.

Clearer definitions

Griffin said the district's new behavior standards will establish a clear definition for what constitutes disruptive and disorderly behavior.

"There needs to be a common understanding of what is disruptive behavior," Griffin said.

The district has now categorized behavior in five different levels, from name-calling and bad language to bomb threats and threats of extreme violence.

For mildly unruly behavior, staff is instructed to redirect student behavior, but not send students home. The most extreme bad behavior can result in immediate suspensions.

The district is training teachers and principals to reinforce positive behaviors, instead of singling out bad behavior.

"We also recognize there are situations where kids come into school with any number of issues and come in with some pretty unsafe behavior," Griffin said. "It's delicate balance. We want to put supports in place that make school a safe and positive environment for every child."

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028