School discipline: What race has to do with it


St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) suspend black students at a rate more than double the district average for all races, and many times higher than the suspension rate of white students. In 2012-13, 10.6 percent of SPPS black students were suspended, compared to 1.9 percent of Caucasian students. Black male students were suspended at the highest rate — 13.5 percent, with 7.5 percent of black female students suspended.

The district average in 2012-13 was 4.7 percent. American Indian students were suspended at a higher-than-average rate of 6.7 percent. Hispanic students (4.1 percent) and Asian American students (1.1 percent) were suspended at lower-than-average rates.

“Our suspension rate is highest for African American students,” said Michelle Bierman, Director of Equity for SPPS. “Suspensions for our African American students have reduced to a degree but not disproportionately.”  

These disparities, along with the achievement gap, are the main reasons the district has racial equity at the top of its agenda — taking on various efforts to address these issues — but the disparities still persist.

Last October, SPPS partnered with the State Representative Carlos Mariani, from the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, African American religious leaders and Mary Cathryn Ricker, President of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, among other stakeholders, to figure out how they could work together to address the suspension disparities. The group held focus meetings and this month is in the process of gathering data that will result in recommendations to the superintendent by August.

One thing St. Paul Public Schools Racial Equity is looking at, Bierman said, is taking a look at “positive deviants,” or “folks out there that aren’t showing behavioral disparities- and how do we learn from each other.” 

When it comes to discipline, what strategies succeed? PBIS is just one of the St. Paul Public Schools programs that affect discipline and racial equity in schools. The picture is as complicated as a Hmong paj ndau story cloth. Pull on the discipline thread, and other threads follow — not only PBIS, but also mainstreaming students, racial equity training for teachers, focusing on suspensions, and even principal bonuses. This article focuses on PBIS, but that’s only one part of the story, with more articles linked to our School Discipline page. We are still looking for more stories — your stories, from your perspective as a student, parent, teacher, principal, or district administrator.

In 2010, SPPS contracted with the Pacific Education Group (PEG), a consultation group that has led trainings for teachers and staff using a racial equity lens. They start with a two-day foundational training and then build on that in stages. Now that some schools — for example, Crossroads Elementary — have gone deeper in the training, the district is looking at going beyond awareness. “We really have been going deeper into practices,” Bierman said. “How do we help the teachers sharpen their toolkit to better meet the needs of a diverse student population?”

With the PEG training, Bierman said the district has developed its internal capacity, so that now SPPS staff facilitate the vast majority of trainings. In addition, PEG isn’t the only racial equity training the district offers, she said.  


SPPS: Discipline and disparities

When it comes to discipline, what strategies succeed? As part of its equity agenda to address pronounced disparities between white students and students of color — especially African American boys — in Saint Paul Public Schools, the district has implemented a number of strategies in the past few years. These include:

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), an approach to school discipline, which began in 2009 in select schools, with more schools being added each year;

• Mainstreaming ELL and EBD students who previously had been separated from regular classrooms, which was implemented in 2013-2014;

• Racial equity training from a group called Pacific Education Group (PEG), which started in 2010.

• Principal bonuses for the 2012-13 school year, with part of the bonus package targeted at reducing suspensions for students of color. According to school board member Mary Doran, that practice was discontinued this year. The bonuses were up to $3,000 but Doran said the average payout was $1,000.

The changes come at the same time as an enormous shift in populations of some schools as a result of the Strong Schools, Strong Communities Strategic Plan that began in 2011.

Positive voices

Ida Lee Hurvitz was on the starting team of PEG at Crossroads Elementary in the Montessori program, and she said it’s been beneficial training for her personally. “The whole idea has shown me all of the ways that there’s been such discrimination of kids of color,” she said. “We think we are giving them the equal opportunities to do well but if we do it in our old white teacher kinds of ways, we are not going to get any gains.”

As an example, Hurvitz said that when giving an assignment to kids to do at home, she’ll provide the tools that they will need to complete the assignment, rather than assuming the students have those available at home.

In addition, Hurvitz said the training has helped her at times to “take a deep breath and ask — why isn’t so and so getting it? Maybe I’m not explaining it in a way that they understand? It’s about being more patient to get the results we need from the children. It’s a cultural awareness process.”

Through the training, Hurvitz has gained tools to help discipline her classroom differently as well. “Often I have kids pair up and stand back to back,” she said. “Person number one tells person number two what we need to do, and that person relates it back. There’s a lot of talking. Another thing — I’m using music in the classroom to get them to clean up. There’s motion and moving and dancing.” In addition, Hurvitz said she has begun using call and response in her class.

While not all of the teachers at the school have been trained, Hurvitz said that all of the teachers are invited to come to the faculty meetings where there are demonstrations. “It’s been wonderful,” Hurvitz said of the training.

Julie Landsman, who writes and speaks about diversity and education (and whose blog appears on TC Daily Planet), has gone through the PEG training unofficially at Champlin Park, and feels it’s a good program. The problem, she said, is that the program is expensive. “I wish they would train more trainers, “ she said. She added that at times there’s resistance to racial equity training because of the stubbornness of some teachers. “Some people are really resistant,” she said.

According to Jasmine Smith, a Special Education Building Coach from Ramsey Middle School, the Beyond Diversity Training through PEG has been amazing. She remembers coming to St. Paul five years ago and feeling the district had a long way to go. “I had no idea we could be so far behind,” she said.

Smith sees the lack of teachers of color and perspectives of color at the table as a big problem. Early on, she attended a conference in which the superintendent was talking about equity, and she remembers looking around the room and seeing 300 people who were mostly white. “Race was not okay to talk about,” she said. “It wasn’t okay to say to the principal, ‘All of my students are black boys.’ I felt uncomfortable about how St. Paul functioned with only white peoples’ voices being heard.”

Racial equity training’s critics

“PEG’s curriculum and the Saint Paul School district’s initiatives are hurting our students,” wrote Chong Thao, a teacher at Como Park High School, in a statement emailed to the Daily Planet. “PEG teaches that students are victims and teachers are oppressors. Its curriculum says that students have no sense self-empowerment, determinism, or intrinsic motivation. Any time nuanced issues are oversimplified in this way, we need to question and challenge it. Instead of offering solutions, especially pragmatic solutions, the district’s initiatives—under PEG’s guidance—do nothing but create an atmosphere of fear rather than optimism, blame rather than personal responsibility, and division rather than unity.”

Some teachers criticize the district’s racial equity training for ignoring issues of poverty as a factor, irrespective of race. “They believe poverty isn’t the issue,” said Roy Magnuson, a teacher at Como Park Senior High, “that race is the only issue. For a lot of people we find that to be pseudo science.  There is a legitimate place for poverty as a factor in many kids’ lives.”

The intersection of race and poverty and school rules

According to School Board Member Louise Seeba, what’s missing from the debate is income and opportunity. “Data shows free and reduced lunch students are suffering greatly,” she said.

According to Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, the issues are at the intersection of race and poverty. “Poverty relates to race,” she said. “It’s part of a subculture.  So the subculture is demonized in the media and in politics and social welfare policies. It translates how the kids are treated. They are not welcome in any of these settings.  The way that we enforce certain policies, we make it clear they are really not welcome. Our policy manifests that we don’t like them, their culture or their communities.  When they claim to only focus on poverty and divorce it from race, it’s doom and gloom when you come out of poverty.  It’s just not true. If you look historically at insurmountable odds that African American and others have faced, no slave would have ever learned to read or go on to college or have careers.” 

Though the district is committed to addressing the suspension disparities, Bierman said, “There is a danger in associating racial equity work with behavior. St. Paul Public Schools racial equity work is not about whether or not students’ behavior is appropriate or not. And those two pieces are getting confused. It’s a real big danger and it’s quite frankly racist. So to say that certain groups of students are more likely to behave in a certain way or because of racial equity work, certain behavior should be excused is not what’s happening. And that is something that has been misspoken frequently and it concerns me as a white woman in this work because it’s perpetuating stereotypes and quite frankly it’s incorrect.” Bierman added that it was important to look at how safety has historically been “co-opted and coded as a way to describe Black men and women in our society. And you only have to watch the news and so forth to see that.”

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Strategies (PBIS) was introduced in 2009 as a way to get at some of the historic disparities in discipline for students of color.

Nicole MartinRogers, the statewide evaluator for PBIS through the Wilder Foundation, would like to see more studies done on the effect of PBIS on racial disparities. Sometimes, she said, there are really two conversations happening — one about PBIS, where schools focus on rewarding positive behavior instead of negative, and the other on racial equity. She believes both conversations should be thought about together.

Bruce Ringaman, a teacher at Como Park High School, takes issue with not being able to enforce some school rules, such as no hats, no phones or sagging pants. He says the current system requires him to take too many steps — such as redirecting the student, moving their seat for the day, having a hallway conversation, talking to parents — before sending them to the office for possible suspension.

Levy-Pounds believes such rules are peripheral issues. “We need to be focusing on the learning environment,” she said. “We have moved so far away from that.” She said the district has become a punitive environment “where minor issues blown out of proportion.” In addition, she said, class size is an issue.

Levy-Pounds said she gets tired of hearing teachers complaining about parents. “You guys are complaining, but you are setting these kids up for failure,” she said. “You don’t realize what you’re doing to these kids.”

Esther Vang, a Junior at Como, says teachers at her school vary about which rules they enforce. As a high achieving student who has taken honors and PSEO classes, Vang says she doesn’t see many fights or discipline issues, but sometimes is aware of students talking back to the teacher. “It’s about respect,” she says. As a Hmong American student, she couldn’t say whether certain groups received more discipline than others, but she did say that as a very diverse school, Como does make efforts to embrace diversity such as student clubs and events.

Controversy at the board level

At an April board meeting, school board member John Broderick spoke out against the direction the school has been going in regard to discipline. He related how teachers, parents and community members have told him they no longer have confidence in the district to provide for the education of their child. “I believe the dedicated and courageous people who have been trying to get the attention of this school district to ask a very simple question,” he said. “What are you doing? What in the world are you doing?”

In light of Broderick’s criticisms, school board member Mary Doran says it’s a process issue. “We have policies and procedures in place. It’s a matter of how it’s getting processed.”

According to Doran, the racial equity training by PEG was supposed to take eight years to implement. The program had already been approved when she was elected a board member three years ago. “To my mind, if the board said it was going to take eight years, then I understood the board when they made that vote. We are going to take the full eight years.”

“I think we need to listen to our teachers,” said school board member Louise Seeba. “They are the ones in the classroom.  We need to provide safe classrooms for all of our classrooms.”

This article is part of a series looking at changes Saint Paul Public Schools has made to address disparities in how the district handles discipline. Check the links below and our School Discipline page for the other pieces of the series that delve more deeply into issues of race and discipline, as well as how Special Education has become a controversial piece of the puzzle.