Minneapolis Schools Consider Suspension Alternatives to Address Race Gap

By Evie Blad — December 09, 2013 2 min read
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The Minneapolis school board will consider a new disciplinary policy Tuesday that would de-emphasize suspensions and introduce alternative disciplinary measures, such as “restorative conversations,” in part to ease discrepancies in disciplinary trends between racial groups, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

Alternatives to suspensions have popped up in news all over the country recently as “school pushout” critics make a new push for more disciplinary data and state policies that encourage or mandate district policy review.

Suggestions of a new policy in Minneapolis followed federal scrutiny about how the district’s existing rules affected students in certain racial groups more than others, the Star Tribune report says.

The first revision in 10 years— and the fifth in the past 30—comes before the school board Tuesday night. It places a new emphasis on measures designed to address the behavior of disruptive students while keeping them in school. Chief among them are restorative conversations, which bring together a student who has acted out and those affected by the actions. They're aimed at talking out issues to reknit the offending student with a classroom." District data show that suspensions start young, with almost 50 kindergartners suspended last year, and peak in the turbulent years of late middle school before ebbing somewhat in high school. Black students were suspended at a rate more than five times that of white students in 2012 and [American] Indian students at a rate four times higher than whites. And when they're suspended, black and Indian students are barred from school for an average of one day longer than Asian, Latino or white students. Those patterns have drawn the attention of federal civil rights officials, who audited records for 11 district schools, according to school board member Richard Mammen. He said the district is waiting for a federal determination."

Nationally, critics of “zero-tolerance” discipline and rules that favor removing students from school as a form of punishment say the resulting lack of classroom time can throw a student off track and does nothing to address the lack of connection to school that led the student to act out in the first place. They also say it’s difficult to apply such policies fairly, and they question why black boys are frequently suspended at higher rates than their white peers.

Critics also say harsh discipline is too frequently applied to less severe offenses. A study I wrote about earlier that examined discipline rates in Pennsyvlania found students dismissed from school for more minor issues, like dress code violations. In a case that’s gathered headlines, a district has even asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review its decision to suspend two female students after they refused to quit wearing “I ♥ Boobies” breast-cancer-awareness bracelets. The district labeled the bracelets disruptive.

But there are interesting crosscurrents in the debate. The changes come as schools step up some security measures and explore ways that they can take a greater role in promoting student safety following highly covered public schootings, including the Dec. 14, 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Maryland’s plans to change its state policy for school discipline after a three-year discussion drew criticism this year from some local boards that were particularly concerned about weapons violations. According to this story about Carroll County Schools in the Baltimore Sun:

School system officials believe the proposals remove the local board's decisionmaking and control of the learning environment and creates unclear and dangerous standards for student discipline and safe and orderly learning environments. In a list of example disciplinary actions under the proposed regulations given to board members Oct. 9, a student who brought a switchblade knife to school and threatened two female students with it would be temporarily removed from class with a short-term suspension of one to three days, required to perform community service, and possibly given an in-school suspension. Under current discipline regulations, the student would receive a 10-day suspension with an extended suspension recommended and a mandatory violence assessment. Students on suspension do have the opportunity to attend the school system's alternative school, the Gateway School in Westminster, so they are not out of school for an extended period of time."

Some who advocate for changes in discipline policies have stopped short of a model rule, instead challenging districts to study their discipline rates and determine whether alternative measures could be more effective.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.