At Minneapolis Public Schools, the racial imbalance of students who are being sent home for behavioral problems is so staggering that district leaders are rethinking the standard for removing children from school.
The vast majority of students receiving suspensions are African-Americans, who are nearly seven times as likely as white students to be pulled from school. And the rates for American Indians are not much better (see chart).
Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson admits she doesn't know why black students are so disproportionately punished.
"I don't think I can explain it," Johnson said. "I can tell you that it's disturbing, that it's concerning, and it's something that we must address."
Nearly 14 percent of African American students in the district were suspended last year, according to district data obtained by MPR News. That compares to just 2 percent of white students.
Across the country, students of color are facing severe consequences for their behavior at higher rates than their white peers. Figures released last year from the U.S. Department of Education show black students were more than three-and-a-half times as likely as whites to be suspended or expelled.
Unlike test scores, the topic of suspensions doesn't typically dominate the discussion on how our schools are doing.
But Johnson said it's one area worth examining as the Minneapolis district tries to close a persistent racial academic achievement gap.
Suspensions and achievement are directly related, she said, simply because if students aren't in class, they're not learning. And research shows these kids are more likely to drop out, which can hurt their prospects for future employment.
And, Johnson said, suspensions don't work.
"We're socializing behavior," she said. "If we start showing a kindergartener that he or she can throw a tantrum on the floor, or throw a book, and then we suspend the kid, we've shown the kid you can do this again, and can go home, and see 'Sesame Street' and have cookies and milk."
The kindergartener example is not unheard of. While rare, the district has suspended kids as young as 5 or 6. But suspensions typically peak in the child's middle-school years.
HARDSHIP ON PARENTS
Sending kids home from school can also take a toll on working parents.
Single mom Helen Hunter has three children who attend Nellie Stone Johnson, a K-8 school on the city's north side. Hunter, who is black, said two of her three kids have been dismissed from school — some for reasons she thinks were warranted, and others that were not.
"It kind of is an obstacle for the parent, because then I have to take a day off work or try to figure out some babysitting situations," Hunter said.
She said her sixth-grader, Glenn, was suspended a couple of years ago after a fight broke out in the boys' restroom. Glenn said he wasn't involved, but Hunter was told there was a zero-tolerance policy against fighting that led to his removal. The district told MPR News, however, that it doesn't have a zero-tolerance policy, and couldn't comment on the case for privacy reasons.
In another instance, a teacher wrote up Glenn for what Hunter considered "clowning around."
"The teacher wasn't laughing, nor was she impressed," Hunter recalled. "She called me once she was fed up: 'This is so disrespectful. I'm trying to talk to the class, and he's talking.' "
Hunter challenged the teacher, asking if Glenn was disrespecting her or if he was simply displaying common behaviors for a child.
Bernadeia Johnson agrees that there needs to be more clarity in the disciplinary standards. An MPR News analysis of the district's suspension data shows that over the past several years, the main reason for dismissing kids from school has been disruptive or disorderly behavior.
Graph by Bill Wareham and Laura Yuen
Johnson said that kind of blanket category leaves too much wiggle room for teachers to interpret children's actions. And she refuses to believe that students of color are simply causing most of the trouble.
"I can't accept the notion that African-American students are so disparate from their peers that they should be suspended in higher numbers," she said.
INSUBORDINATE OR 'PRECOCIOUS'?
Johnson draws from her own experience as a mother of an outspoken, opinionated African-American girl whom Johnson preferred to describe as "precocious."
"I'm sure she was probably a pain to some of the teachers," Johnson said of her now-grown daughter.
Johnson recalls the time her daughter, Briana, was playing on the softball field when a girl named Jane, who was white, slapped her in the face. Jane started to scream, and teachers initially assumed it was Briana who slapped the other girl.
The teachers struggled to mete out an appropriate punishment for Jane, Johnson said. She believes race did play a factor in how the teachers handled the situation.
"They really didn't want to suspend her, but knew she should have a consequence," Johnson said. "And I was clear that if it was my daughter who slapped her, she would have been suspended, and all of this problem-solving may not have happened."
The district is consulting parents and teachers to gather ideas on how to change the behavior policy. The overall suspension rate has dipped over the past several years, even though the racial disparities persist.
Minnesota's largest school district, St. Paul Public Schools, was singled out in a national report this week for its high rate of suspending African-Americans with special needs.
But district officials note that the data used in the study by the University of California-Los Angeles are nearly three years old. St. Paul has lowered its suspension rate significantly for that group by training teachers and funneling special-ed kids into mainstream classes, said Liz Keenan, the district's director of special education.
"We really dove into our practices: How do we de-escalate students? How do we make sure we're hearing them? How can we [offer people] who they talk to throughout the day if they feel things are not going well for them?" Keenan said.
Minneapolis district officials say the question is how to narrow the gap without treating one group of students more favorably than the other. They believe an overall reduction in suspensions will provide a more accepting environment for all students.
Teachers say they need tools in place to maintain control of the class, so they can teach students who want to learn.
Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said she supports the district's efforts to reduce suspensions. But it's not fair to presume most teachers are discriminating against students of color, she said. She says it may just be a lack of understanding.
"We have students who are coming to school hungry, who've not slept in a bed, who have been evicted from their home or who have had to move every two or three weeks to a different school," Nordgren said. "I think if I was 8 years old and those things were happening to me, I might be pretty crabby. Those things all play out in the classroom."
ALTERNATIVES TO SUSPENSION
Civil-rights advocates say teachers should look at their own practices if they're having a lot of behavioral problems in the class.
The Center for Civil Remedies at the University of California-Los Angeles released a report this week offering alternatives to harsh discipline policies.
The center's director, Daniel Losen, is a former teacher who remembers repeatedly sending kids to the principal's office early in his career.
"The principal said, 'You need some support around your classroom management.' And she was right," Losen said. "By my 10th year of teaching, I never dreamed of sending a kid — not one — to the principal's office."
The answer for some educators, he said, might be as simple as developing stronger relationships with the students and their parents.
After Minneapolis parent Helen Hunter complained to her son's teacher that she needed to be more informed about Glenn's behavior, Hunter was pleased to see the teacher make sure to keep her in the loop.
"She took it to heart," Hunter said. "She calls me every time there's a problem, and then she calls me when there's good stuff. And she says, 'Glenn was so thoughtful. He made the other kids think. It was just beautiful having him in my class.'"
But Hunter said that's just one teacher, trying to make a difference with one kid. If the district wants to make sure it's treating all students equitably, Hunter said that'll take a lot more work.
Graph by Bill Wareham and Laura Yuen