‘Reverse racism’ used to combat discipline bias
By Charles Hallman
Minneapolis Public Schools’ (MPS) newly announced “aggressive steps” to reduce Black student nonviolent suspensions are now in place.
“We have been suspending [Black] students at high levels…and we have known this for several years,” admitted MPS Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, “and we have not addressed the disproportionality of students in terms of their behaviors. We want all of our students in Minneapolis Public Schools to succeed.”
The superintendent last week also disputed a local mainstream newspaper’s report that she herself will review or approve each suspension. “That is not what I said,” noted Johnson.
“We need to take specific steps,” said Robin Francis, a special assignment principal for behavior standards who is heading Johnson’s leadership team to review all Black and Latino suspensions. These steps include developing a “standard protocol” for recording discipline incidents and responses. “The policy set the stage for continuing to improve our classroom environment.”
MPS Chief Academic Officer Susanne Griffith said that “culturally relevant instruction” in Minneapolis schools is both important and necessary. “Part of our work also is going to be needing to ensure that the environments that kids are learning in are engaging, that relationships with their teachers and other students in the classroom are strong, and that the instruction that they are being provided is culturally relevant.”
“Because this isn’t about all students, I’ve become a ‘reverse racist,” said Johnson during her presentation to the Minneapolis School Board last Monday. “Obviously there’s something that is
disproportionately influencing people to make these [suspension] decisions. I want people to know that this is a serious issue.
“This has been going on for too long,” she pointed out. “I stand by my decision. If you can think of another way to disrupt this cycle, please let me know.”
Johnson also announced that she lifted a moratorium on nonviolent suspensions for pre-kindergarten through first-grade students that she put in place at the beginning of the school year, and told school board members that she has no plans to impose a similar moratorium for all grades. She added that MPS school suspensions for all student groups “have nearly been cut in half” compared to last school year at this time.
The moratorium nonetheless “sent a message to the entire system that we all need to pay attention to nonviolent behaviors,” stated Johnson. Although suspensions overall have been reduced by 50 percent, the superintendent said that 75 percent of those still being suspended are African American students. “We will start to reduce our suspensions at the system level…, especially Black boys, to understand why they are being suspended so we can help intervene with teachers, students [and] leaders to help give them targeted support that they
“I want to be very specific — it’s about reducing disproportionality,” explained Johnson of the district’s aggressive goals of 25 percent fewer suspensions by the end of this school year, 50 percent by 2016, 75 percent by 2017, and 100 percent by 2018. “We are progressively addressing this issue across the system,” she said.
Johnson’s policy eventually received board approval after it was discussed among Minneapolis board members last week. “If you are saying no to suspensions, what are you saying yes to?” asked Tracine Asberry.
Alberto Monserrate observed that new standards such as the ones now in place “can be scary” but said the public must stop being afraid.
“I’m excited about the standards. I think we are going in the right direction,” said Board Member Kim Ellison after the nearly four-hour meeting.
During her November 7 media session at Davis Center, the MSR asked Johnson to offer nonviolent behavior examples after she told reporters that each school now has a pre-intervention referral manual. “It [the manual] lays out almost every type of behavior you can think of,” she pointed out, “and it gives you up to 25 strategies for each of those individual behaviors. Not all of them will work for all kids. What could work for one child might not work for another.
“We have to be consistent” in addressing student behavior, stated Johnson. “You have two students engaging in similar behavior. If you’re Black or brown, you are suspended, and if you’re not, you are not suspended. I want to disrupt that in any way that I can. The only way I could think of was to take those actual suspensions, go back to those individuals making those decisions, and try to probe and ask questions. When people are making decisions [on suspensions], it seems to be a ‘blind’ [approach].”
The MSR then asked Johnson if she had “floated” her plans to school leaders prior to last week’s announcement. “We tried something and we thought it would reduce the disproportionality and it didn’t, so I suspect they knew something else was coming.
“One of the things I also floated out there when I did the moratorium in pre-K, K and [grade] one [was] that we would be reviewing other grades on extending the moratorium to other grades.” For the most part everyone is on board with her plan, Johnson said.
Marika Pfefferkorn, who directs the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership’s Solutions Not Suspensions statewide program, told the MSR at last week’s board meeting that she supports Johnson’s plan. “It’s a positive step. There’s still much more work beyond what they propose to get done, but I am encouraged by what happened thus far.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.