Ababiy: The national school discipline crisis plays out in Minneapolis

For years now, public schools have been disproportionately suspending students with disabilities and minorities.

Jonathan Ababiy

Minneapolis Public Schools has a school discipline problem.

Black students made up 40 percent of all students across the district in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, but were subject to an astonishing 74 percent of recorded disciplinary incidents.

These numbers are only part of a broader national crisis.  However, they also illustrate that something special is happening: black students were given 78 percent of all out-of-school suspensions in Minneapolis. Though black students are 16 percent of all public school students in America, they are suspended from school 32-42 percent of the time.

Diagnosing this problem, the Obama Administration’s Education Department released a memo in early 2014, guiding school districts with discipline policies that disproportionately affected students with disabilities and minorities to reexamine them. Later, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights ordered a compliance review of MPS’ discipline policies, alleging that students of color were being treated differently.

The resulting investigation brought out some revealing stories. When a black second-grader poked another student with a pencil, he was suspended for one day, but when another white second-grader threw a rock, hitting a student and breaking the teacher’s glasses, he was not suspended and was allowed to work off the cost of the sunglasses. The investigator’s probe showed that there was a pattern of black students receiving punishments more often and for longer than their white counterparts.

The Education Department and MPS settled in late 2014, creating an agreement that MPS would take specific actions to create more fair and equitable discipline policies and practices.

Although there are no data specific to Minneapolis yet, research shows that high suspension rates depress academic achievement. One study from Indiana University found that policies with high levels of student removal from the classroom hurt student learning. For many offenses it is better for students to remain in class than to miss valuable class time. Other research shows high levels of suspension create alienating school environments that generate “student apathy, anxiety, and disconnection,” where students believe they are treated unfairly.

Academic research on school discipline shows that other, less punitive methods of discipline work better at keeping order and promoting academic achievement.

One promising new discipline policy that has become popular since the Obama memo is restorative justice. The policy is an alternative framework, which emphasizes participation and discussion between offender and victim, while always focusing on keeping the offender accountable so kids can understand their offenses. A University of Minnesota trial carried out in MPS schools found that the introduction of a restorative justice program led to stronger attendance and less behavioral incidents.

However, despite restorative justices and the Obama memo’s successes, the new Betsy DeVos led Education Department has put the Obama memo under review. They see the memo as weak on offenders, even though it allows school districts to suspend and expel students when necessary.

The revocation of the Obama memo would be unwise. It would undo the progress our schools have made toward creating policies that don’t disproportionately affect black students. The students in our schools deserve better.