Minneapolis school board approves measure to decrease suspension, Superintendent disputes claims that schools are warehouses, mini-jails

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.

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“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.

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.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman [at] spokesman-recorder [dot] com (challman [at] spokesman-recorder [dot] com )

  • 20131227 Minneapolis school board approves measure to decrease suspension The problem with this story, and the history of some students not behaving well is that they are labelled. Period. As a dear friend of 1970's Superintendent of Public Schools, John B. Davis, Jr., PhD. Ed., since my very awkward beginning at Macalester College, where he presided from 1980 to 1986 before moving on to assist Saint Cloud State University, I am astounded and offended that any kid would be referred to in an objectifying term. The fact that the current superintendent is black, to me, does not necessarily equate her as being enlightened or capable. My comment, here, is based on the fact that she made the reference to "EBD students," several times in the interview used in the article published above this response. As the son of a high school drop out mother who chastised me for staying up late one Friday evening to take care of studies, and who remarked, "Don't try to impress me with your intellect," I can relate with the single parent, and poorly educated parent kids who are in school with poor role models at home. While there are very nice African American parents in our community, I've been in north Minneapolis, and I do not see brainiacs as adults on the region's MetroTransit routes. Before jumping to the conclusion that I am racist for pointing out a very real and objective fact, which so many of these parents had no control over as they grew up, please know that one of my physicians is an African American, a friend, who is also gay, is black, and ran for state representative -- with no endorsement in that house district. Moreover, I have peacefully and enjoyably living among African Americans for over twenty years -- advocating on their behalf, and sharing ideas with management at the largest apartment complex in Minnesota, which houses 4,000 people. Families of the slave trade legacy have had a bad great difficulties for hundreds of years where they were torn apart, and where two inhouse parents with a high level of education did not exist. Hence, role modeling for all but the most patient and enlightened parents (regardless of their level of education) has often shown the kids a poor example of adults, what to expect from them, and to know of the rewards they can receive through patience, joy, diligence, cooperation, and magnanimous and outgoing personalities. My great reward came when I moved in with my dad and stepmom in the Lowry Hill Neighborhood, and was placed at De La Salle High School on Nicollet Island.in downtown Minneapolis -- in the Third Ward of Minneapolis. My dad made a simple, unemotional and non-threatening rule: No television or leisure-time until after I completed two hours of study, and had finished all exercises and assignments. As I was somewhat autistic, but brilliant for my age, I could have been looked upon as a behavioral problem. However, my academic advisor took me under his wing, using humor to dissipate my complicated view of life. I became an A-honors student with his support and the support of my dad and stepmom -- an attorney and nurse anesthetist, respectively. It didn't matter what professions or what jobs they had. The fact was that they, and my academic advisor (who encouraged me to apply for Harvard, Georgetown, Cornell University on the East Coast, Macalester College, and University of Minnesota) all supported me with kindness -- not the sort of angry and frustrated despotic behavior found in many public schools with students who have not found joy in their lives. As a public leader, and acquaintance and correspondent with now deceased and current Minneapolis School Board members; and, at the request of Joy Davis, John Davis' widow, I have been asked to carry the torch of civility and mentorship forward. This is one of my missions and this, here and now, is one act in line with both Joy and John Davis, Jr. Before attending De La Salle, I lived in a very wealthy public school district with instructors who could have been professors. My grades were a floundering set of C's, B's, and D's at the school I attended before moving to De La Salle. When my dad began to understand what was going on at my home with my mom -- who has since become a very lovely, patient, and loyal parent to her 51-year-old adult son -- he proactively worked with energetic, high minded, and thorough professionals at Moundsview Senior High School in New Brighton, MN. I was failing my biology and my geometry class. My dad negotiated three times the workload, if I agreed to it for those classes in my junior year. My work was college level work at the junior or senior level of college. I received A's in both classes because I was treated with respect, faith, and love -- not officiousness from a frustrated wag of a high school teacher. What is important here is that the intense workload was not a punishment, but a contractual agreement between the school and my dad; and, between my dad and myself and my two instructors. To close, I think this school district would be much better off if they stopped objectifying students as being poor, black, Native American, or otherwise, and to begin treating each kid as a special individual where it is the faculties responsibility to etch away the rough, and to hone diamonds of great beauty. The notion of using a pejorative acronym to identify certain kids flies in the face of creating a value added educational community. Heads should roll -- including the superintendent if she continues to use such trashy words to describe the potential leaders of our society when they find they are loved and encouraged. UNEDITED - by Barry N Peterson on Fri, 12/27/2013 - 3:56am
  • With an additional comment: I also lived in North Minneapolis when I was a kid. I've gone to public schools and seen "discipline," like "Mr. Wagoner, the principal, goose-stepping and kicking one of my friends down the lunchroom aisle, and also smashing his head into the ceramic brick wall of our grade school. As with parents of any race, not all superintendents and teachers are created equally. Some treat the most difficult of students like royalty, and speak to them in comforting ways, while others are crass, insensitive, brash, unenlightened, having very little high character, and know so little about leadership and human psychology that they treat themselves as notorious king's of the hill as they abuse and model hatred into kids. Society should not support these types. As a member of the DFL Senate District 60 Central Committee in South and Northeast Minneapolis, I do not support union leaders who would quietly and discompassionately allow "educators" of this variety to remain employed. I say Support the Greatest Teachers; Replace the Trash -- at all faculty and administrative levels." - by Barry N Peterson on Fri, 12/27/2013 - 8:29pm