Mpls. school board approves measure to decrease suspension

Superintendent disputes claims that schools are warehouses, mini-jails


Charles Hallman

Staff Writer

The Minneapolis School Board last week approved a new district-wide discipline policy. The “Behavior Standards Policy,” which will take effect in the 2014-15 school year, “sets clear expectations, defines consistent responses and helps staff members find alternatives to suspensions.”

This came in response to an “alarming” suspension rate of one in five Black males annually being suspended compared to one in 29 White males, especially in the early grades. According to Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, who spoke with the MSR during a December 19 interview, a new policy is needed to help Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) close the achievement gap between Blacks and other students.

“It’s really about expanding learning time for students and reducing suspensions and out-of-school time, especially for our African American students and African American boys,” Johnson explained. “I am not saying that kids are creating an unsafe environment and leaving them [in school], and I am not sure I am interested in in-school suspension rooms either. But we have to figure out a different way of giving students a time-out and some space, and reenergize them back quickly into the learning environment.”

The superintendent also pointed out that the new policy may not be universally accepted at first, especially among teachers. “There is going to be some tensions around this,” believes Johnson, adding that this might mean “a serious culture change” among MPS principals, teachers and other school staff as the new discipline policy is implemented.

“Yes, it will require a real culture change, a mindset change and it will require a change in our accountability efforts in our support of schools,” Johnson continued. “Obviously we will have to do some training of staff, and how we work with families in the community to help address these behaviors. But I believe it is the right thing to do.”

The new policy furthermore “is not just about the behavior of students but also about the adult behaviors,” said Johnson. “It is not just about student discipline but it’s about behaviors in general, whether they are from a student or a staff [member] that allows this to happen in our classrooms. What is making these behaviors happen? What happens to trigger that behavior, and how can we address those triggers? Some kids act out just to get out of class or be sent home to get out of school…to go home and play on video games.

“The policy itself is not going to change what happens but it’s the people who are implementing it,” said Johnson. “I will be tightly monitoring what happens around this work.”

Last week’s board action came ironically a couple of days after a Sunday front-page published article in a local newspaper that said Blacks and other students of color are overrepresented in Minneapolis special education programs. Johnson, who was quoted in the story, told the MSR that she didn’t disagree with the article that said almost 70 percent of MPS students who are labeled with emotional or behavioral disorders (EBD) are Black, the largest percentage among Minnesota’s 10 largest school districts, but failed to mention that her office has been looking into how EBD students are placed.

Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson Photo by Charles Hallman
Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson
Photo by Charles Hallman

She agrees that too often Black students are mislabeled as EBD “and [it] feels like a life sentence… I do feel like if you have behaviors that are inappropriate and other kids have appropriate behaviors,” those inappropriate behaviors should be addressed, “and I do feel like we do have people who are afraid of our African American boys,” says Johnson.

“And in some cases, I believe some people think they are helping the student by giving the kid this label to get them the support that they need,” she explained. “They feel like they can’t help the student so at least if they are in special ed…they can get additional support. But I think that’s the wrong way to think.”

Johnson added that some Harrison Education Center staff members complained to her that the article portrayed the North Minneapolis school in a very negative light. “The disapportionality at Harrison, Crawford and River Bend, we do have more students of color who are EBD than White students.”

However, the article also didn’t discuss the other nine districts with EBD programs, especially those who place EBD students in locations outside of the respective school district, says Johnson “We try to keep the students in our community and not send them somewhere else. They didn’t talk about these other districts and [their] EBD students.

“As an African American superintendent, it concerned me [that the article] said we were warehousing kids, or [Harrison] is like a mini-jail. I will tell you [Harrison] is safe and orderly. I have been over there and I have seen instruction taking place. I just thought it was bad overall in the way it was written,” said Johnson.

Finally, Johnson says MPS next year will conduct a special education audit and review. “I am going to have a consulting group look at our special ed practices and give me recommendations on what we can do to change what’s happening in our special ed programs overall,” she concludes. “Being EBD does not mean you can’t learn.”

Next: Johnson discusses the Minneapolis School Board’s recent approval of her five-year enrollment plan. 

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