Q&A: Mpls. superintendent on reducing school suspensions

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson
Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson is engaging parents and teachers to bring more clarity to the district's disciplinary standards. Addressing racial disparities in school suspensions is one important step to closing the achievement gap, she said, because if kids aren't in the classroom, they're not learning. African-American students are sent home for behavior at much higher rates than their white peers.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Over the past several years, Minneapolis Public Schools has lowered its overall out-of-school suspension rate, but the question of who is being sent home for disciplinary reasons continues to vex district officials. African-American and Native American students are several times more likely than white students to be suspended.

The district is gathering ideas from parents and teachers on how to change the behavior standards policy in hopes of closing the gap and reducing overall suspensions even more. Reporter Laura Yuen talked to Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson about why she sees this as a top priority.

Related: Mpls. tackles high rate of African-American student suspensions

LY: How do you explain the huge racial disparities in your district's suspension data?

BJ: I don't think I can explain it. I can tell you this is disturbing, that it's concerning, and that it's something we must address. We have to look for everything we can that will change academic outcomes for students. For every day that a child is out of school, it has an adverse impact on how that child will do academically.

LY: So you see a direct relation between suspensions and the academic achievement gap?

BJ: Absolutely. We have data that suggests if a child misses eight days of school, that has an adverse impact on their academic achievement, especially in mathematics.

LY: Your data show that the No. 1 reason why kids are being suspended is for disorderly or disruptive or disorderly behavior and insubordination. Are you concerned that's giving teachers too much discretion to determine what that is?

BJ: We are concerned because that's too much of a catch-all. What we're trying to do is be more specific and get more granular. Students and families need to know why their kids are being suspended. When we don't have clear expectations about what we want children to do, and we're not consistent, that lack of clarity leads to greater inconsistency in the schools. And that leads students to say, 'What did I do?'

I was just visiting a school last week. It was clear that students in that school were not supposed to wear hats. A male student had a hat on, walking down the hall. The teacher said, 'Robert, take your hat off.' And she kept walking. She did not get up in the child's face, she didn't try to take the hat off, and she didn't become confrontational. And the child took his hat off. I believe we need to do more of that. I told the teacher, 'You handled that beautifully.' She didn't become angry about it, like, 'You disrespected me.' Children are children, and sometimes they challenge adults.

LY: What do the teachers say about your efforts to change the disciplinary policy?

BJ: I think teachers are concerned about control, making sure their students are safe, and they're safe. But the more control people exert, the less control they have. Students should have the opportunity to be respectful, but teachers should also understand these are individuals who are developing. Our responsibility is to shape their behaviors.

There are also some behaviors we should not accept in the school, and we should hold kids accountable to it. If you're hurting someone or hurting yourself, that's not OK. Sometimes we need to remove the kid from the learning environment for his safety or someone else's safety.

LY: What if a kid is being disruptive — not hurting anybody — but is dragging the rest of the class down?

BJ: Absolutely. That's one of the challenges I hear from teachers. They want to teach, and there are kids there who want to learn. That's not OK, either. I think [it's important to be] clear and understand what is triggering the behavior in the classroom.

LY: As you know, about 78 percent of the suspensions in your district involved African-American students. Is it plausible that African-American students are the ones causing more trouble?

BJ: I can't accept the notion that African-American students are so disparate from their peers that they should be suspended in higher numbers. When my brother lived with me when he went to high school, I went to the classroom. And the teacher was so excited to tell me how well behaved he was. And while I wanted him to show up every day in school well behaved, I also wanted him to learn. She was less excited to help me understand why he was getting D in the class. We have to make sure students show up to school every day on time, well behaved, and ready to learn.

Parents have to reinforce those expectations at home. I'm old enough to know that if I did not behave at school, when I got home, my mom would expect my teacher to be truthful. She wouldn't believe me, quite frankly. I think today's youth are being raised where the parents and teachers are not on the same page. There's so much distrust that if a child comes home and says something, the parent believes that without question.

Parents need to be telling teachers, 'I have your back, I'm here to support you, you help my child learn doing the school day, and I'll do what I need to do at home.'

LY: What do you think is happening instead?

BJ: Some of these behaviors that we look at as suspendable — like disrespect and disobedience — and the parents are like, "Are you kidding me?" There's a disconnect. Parents are concerned that their kids are not in school. Parents have jobs to hold down. And some of the behaviors being displayed at school, they're not seeing at home.

LY: Do you think schools should be teaching soft skills, especially if kids aren't not learning them at home?

BJ: We absolutely have a role in shaping soft skills. Students have to learn to be respectful, but they also need to be respected.

LY: What kind of cultural biases do you think teachers bring when deciding a kid's behavior is suspendable?

BJ: I've seen teachers try to be friends with kids, and they lose something when they do that. They lose a level of respect and distance that should exist between an adult and child. So, when the child comes back at the adult in those too-familiar ways, and the teacher's in a bad mood or not up for it, they see it as disrespect — when days before, it was OK. Teachers have to be consistently adults and say, I'm not your friend, I'm here to help you get a great education.'

And I've seen students who are outspoken and opinionated. From one child, it's seen as 'disrespectful,' and for another child, 'precocious.'

LY: Does race play a part in that?

BJ: I believe it does, sad to say. One of the things we're trying to do is get to those types of ways people think about students. It's really about reshaping our adult mindset as well as shaping students' behaviors.

LY: What is the district doing about suspensions and how it relates to racial disparities?

BJ: We're trying to reduce suspensions overall, and especially to reduce disparities between African-American students and their peers. It's a challenge for us. If we're going to address the achievement gap, we have to make sure we're lifting the covers on every aspect of education.

Suspensions don't change behaviors. But having a trusted adult in the school, having clear expectations from all of the teachers that are consistently applied, and having respectful relationships, matter. We should be using other practices, like restorative justice. For example, if you throw trash on the ground, the natural consequence would be for you to pick up the trash all week. Suspending that child will not help that child understand what it means for the adult picking up the trash around the school.

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