Minneapolis Superintendent Bans Suspensions for Younger Children

Minneapolis has decided that suspending children in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first-grade for non-violent behavior is the wrong approach to discipine.

Public schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has banned the practice unilaterally with the aim of keeping children in class and forcing teachers to discipline children in school, writes Alejandra Matos of the Star Tribune.

“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.”

Leaders of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers believe that other options are available, but deciding how a child should be disciplined by edict from the administration is not right.  The union is strongly pushing for counselors and mental health professionals to be accessible for students who need them.

Data show, according to critics of suspensions as a disciplinary practice, that teachers target children of color or with mental health problems most often. The ban comes in the wake of a Star Tribune report last August which pointed out that kindergarten through fourth-grade suspensions increased by 32% in the past year.  In the other grades suspensions were down 10%.

In fact, Minneapolis schools are being investigated by civil rights officials in the US Department of Education over questionable suspensions.

“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 that teachers and staff have the ability to make referrals to mental health services.  But the district’s poorest schools, with the newest teachers and the lowest test scores, will be hit the hardest.  The district is working with principals and teachers to clearly define what constitutes disruptive behavior, with only the most extreme behaviors like drug possession or assault requiring suspension.

Reg Chapman of WCCO says that teachers will now use time-outs or will bring another adult into the room to calm the student down and give him or her time to process and talk about the behavior.  Johnson believes that a teacher should do whatever is necessary to integrate the student back into the classroom.

The best way to deal with the issue, according to Johnson, is parent involvement.  When the student knows that there is a direct line of communication between teacher and parent, this can be a help to children who are disruptive.

In a another Star Tribune piece by Matos, a quote by Amy Goetz of the School Law Center is reported.  First, calling suspension of young children “outrageous”, she continues by saying…

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 suspension data for last year shows that black students were four times more likely to be suspended as compared to white kids.  Next likely to be suspended were special education students and Native American children.

The district’s new behavior policies will ensure that there are clear definitions of disruptive and disorderly behavior.  There are now five levels which range from name-calling and bad language to bomb threats and threats of violent acts.  The district is being trained in how to reinforce positive behaviors.

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