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Minneapolis school uses boxing to help reduce behavior problems

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Seven-year-old Aaliyah trains in the hallway after school.
A 7-year-old student trains in the hallway after school at the Lucy Laney Boxing Academy in Minneapolis on April 25, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

During his daily classroom rounds, Morgan McDonald looks for early signs of tension among students at Lucy Laney Elementary School. Check-ins with teachers are one way McDonald, a student support specialist, tries to head off fights at the north Minneapolis elementary school. 

"Let's say, I check in, and right before I check in, a kid was getting ready to explode," he said. "Me being proactive — because if he explodes — I'm going to have to go see him anyway. So, I'm kind of beating him to the punch."

His goal is to get students to work out their frustrations in a constructive way. McDonald, also a certified boxer, coach and official, used to keep a punching bag in his office. He discovered that some kids would only open up and start talking about what was bothering them after they put on boxing gloves and took out their aggression on a punching bag. 

Now Lucy Laney has its own boxing room with gloves, heavy bags and exercise equipment that was either donated or that McDonald bought on Craigslist. 

On a recent afternoon, McDonald brought two second-grade students to the boxing room after they tussled in the lunchroom. At first, the boy and girl didn't want to talk about their outburst. But after a round of hitting the bags, jumping rope, pushups and situps, the boy told McDonald that he was upset because his classmate said he was stupid as they stood together in the lunch line.

The girl denied it when it was her turn to talk. But by that point, the kids were tired from their workout and the tension between them was nearly gone. 

Lucy Laney students listen to instructions from Morgan McDonald Sr.
Lucy Laney students listen to instructions from Morgan McDonald during the after-school boxing academy in Minneapolis on April 25, 2019. They train with pushups, relay races, punching combos and hitting the bag.
Evan Frost | MPR News

McDonald determined that the lunchroom incident didn't rise to the level of a serious fight — which can mean suspension. 

Lucy Laney at Cleveland Park Elementary School has had success in reducing suspensions. Minneapolis Public School's data show the number of suspensions at the school have dropped from 343 in the 2013-2014 school year to 30 in year 2017-2018. Instead of sending kids home, school staff have concentrated on discipline that keeps kids in school. Data show in-school discipline has increased, but not as sharply as the decrease in suspensions. 

McDonald's colleagues give him a lot of credit for improvements in student behavior. Since students like to spend time with McDonald in the boxing room, teachers also use the space as a reward. 

"Some kids want to go and hang out," said Alcindor Hollie, who teaches fourth grade. "In those cases, we make it as an incentive for them to do their jobs, so then they can get that energy out." 

The boxing room is in use after school, too. About two dozen students participate in an elective program, which includes conditioning and skill training.

McDonald used to hold a similar program at a nearby gym. But last fall, he asked Lucy Laney's after-school program coordinator Nuuria Osman to make it an option for students. Osman gave it the go ahead.

"I felt that boxing was always something that we hadn't explored for after school and it's something culturally that the African-American community is very familiar with," she said. 

Six-year-old Jesse peers up through his boxing gloves.
A 6-year-old student peers up through his boxing gloves during the after school Lucy Laney Boxing Academy in Minneapolis.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Students choose to take the boxing class. However, parents can have them taken out of the program, if they want. So far, that hasn't happened, said Osman.

The boxing class fills up fast, said McDonald, so not everyone gets in. But he knows there are students who could really use the exercise and disciplined training.

"So, I'll take extra kids just to further help them," he said. "Not just have them during the day, have them after school as well."

McDonald encourages some of those kids to compete as members of the Lucy Laney Boxing Academy, which is a new member of USA Boxing. Students in the club train to compete in amateur boxing events, like the Junior Olympics tournament held at the school the first weekend in May.

Mauri Friestleben, Lucy Laney's principal, doesn't like boxing — not even fictional depictions on a movie screen.

"I can't even watch 'Rocky,' " she said. 

Fifth-grader Alexis hits a punching bag.
A fifth-grader hits a punching bag in between classes.
Evan Frost | MPR News

But Friestleben said McDonald showed her a different side of the sport that puts mentorship front and center. And she saw a benefit to having a place where students could work out their frustrations. Friestleben said she remembers what it was like as a kid to feel angry and look for reasons to lash out. 

"And so, listening to Morgan and seeing what he was doing resonated with me because I remember feeling like that," she said.  "And I feel like I, we've tried to provide opportunities for kids here at Laney to get it out — but get it out in a way that's not going to cause harm."

Friestleben said only kids whose parents have signed them up to be a part of USA Boxing can actually spar with other students. That's only a small number of participants, she said.

When asked if it's counterintuitive to teach kids to box as a way to reduce fighting in school, Friestleben said she hasn't found "one bit of evidence" to indicate that students who do boxing training are more aggressive than students who don't.

As someone who grew up in a troubled Chicago neighborhood, McDonald said he can relate to the problems his students face every day. Boxing and other sports gave McDonald the chance to channel his own frustrations. Sports also gave him the chance to come into contact with adults who cared about kids. They coached, had an open door for anyone in the neighborhood and gave him advice. That's what McDonald is trying to emulate now.

"I knew that was what I wanted to do, because for me, that was cool," said McDonald. 

"I am who I am. I been through what I been through. I've seen what I've seen. It made me who I am," he said.