Minneapolis public schools to take a new approach to suspensions

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Bernadeia Johnson
Minneapolis Public School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.
Photo courtesy Minneapolis Public Schools

The Minneapolis school district plans to closely monitor why schools are suspending black, Latino and Native American students as part of an agreement announced Friday with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

District officials hope that increased scrutiny reduces the disproportionate number of students of color schools are suspending.

For more than two years, the Office for Civil Rights has been investigating the high number of suspensions of African-American students in the Minneapolis School District. It has been trying to been trying to determine whether school policy discriminates against students of color by punishing them more harshly than white students.

During that time district officials say they've been working on their own ways to reduce suspensions.

Last year at this time schools in the district had suspended 769 students. So far this fall, 362 have been suspended, a decrease of more than half.

More: The agreement with the U.S. Department of Education

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson credits the drop to the district's use of alternatives to out of school suspensions for non-violent types of behavior, like talking back to a teacher.

Johnson said a ban on suspensions of the district's youngest students for non-violent behavior has also helped. She also said teachers are being trained on ways to handle student behavior in the classroom, rather than sending a student down to the office.

But Johnson says a stubborn gap remains between the number of suspensions of white students and students of color. This fall, African-American students comprised 76 percent of students suspended while they make up just over a third of students enrolled in the district.

Starting next week, Johnson said suspensions will receive much more scrutiny by her office.

"I and all of my staff will start to review all non-violent suspensions of students of color, especially black boys, to understand why they're being suspended so we can help intervene with teachers, student leaders and help give them the targeted support they need for these students," she said.

Johnson said the district aims to reduce the gap in suspensions between white students and Native American, Latino and black students by half in 2016, and erase the gap by 2018.

And as part of a voluntary agreement with the Office for Civil Rights, the district also will work to better identify why students are suspended, find more alternatives to suspension, offer clearer data on suspensions to the community, and reduce the number of police officers involved in incidents of school discipline.

Teachers want to find ways to reduce suspensions as well, said Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

But Nordgren said the district should consider striking more partnerships with mental health providers in the community, so that students get help when they do need to leave the classroom.

"When we have a student who is disrupting learning for other students, and that student is not responding to the techniques and tools that we're using than we may need to get some help that's just down the hallway," she said.

A major focus for the district will be to use data to find solutions to the suspension gap.

The district's challenge will be to offer clear, understandable data on suspensions, in order to work ahead on solutions, said Marika Pfefferkorn, a director for the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership.

"How accurately can we capture this data, how are we sharing the information internally and with the community and how do we adapt and adjust as we learn what the data is telling us," said Pfefferkorn, who has worked with the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts on finding alternatives to suspensions.

Johnson will present the latest plan to reduce suspensions to the Minneapolis School Board on Monday.