Discipline in schools has been a prominent issue in Minnesota this past year. From media reports to the creation of coalitions, advocates from all sides have spoken on the policies currently in place. The one point of agreement: the system must change.
During the most recent Legislative session, numerous discipline bills were introduced regarding suspensions, expulsions, classroom removals, students’ due process and better data collection. With the exception of increasing funding to support implementation of Positive Behavior Interventions and Systems (PBIS), this session did not end with the Legislature making significant improvements to how schools discipline students. If anything, our laws took a step backward by strengthening provisions focused on removing students from class. Legislators recognized, however, that school discipline must be addressed, allowing community leaders, educators, school and district leaders, students and parents to come together in a Student Discipline Working Group to provide recommendations to the Legislature.
The working group is comprised of a variety of education professionals ranging from principals to teachers to school counselors to nurses. Education and equity advocacy groups promoting the interests of students, rural and urban school districts and students with disabilities are also official members of the group. These meetings are made open to the public and anyone is encouraged to attend!
The working group met for the first time on July 14, and began with an in depth presentation on Minnesota’s Pupil Fair Dismissal Act. The data and narrative shared by the Minnesota Department of Education presented was compelling. This quickly moved to stakeholders presenting issues and having a healthy discourse on topics concerning dismissal procedures and resources available to parents. One of the newest and most notable voices was Lupe Thornhill, the one student representative on the working group, representing the Minnesota Youth Council. Lupe, currently a Junior at St. Paul Central High School, provided a personal, informative student perspective. As someone who has seen the failings of the current discipline system, she talked passionately about the changes that needed to be made.
Representatives from diverse fields and perspectives reached some consensus around the direction of the working group. The common theme: pushing kids out of school is wrong, particularly when our discipline policies disproportionately impact kids of color and kids with disabilities. I was also pleasantly surprised when Officer Paul Schnell from the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training mentioned that it was his goal to eliminate the need for police officers in schools.
At the end of the meeting, the co-chairs were elected:
- Lupe Thornhill, Minnesota Youth Council student representative;
- Marika Pfefferkorn, Minnesota Education Equity Partnership and chair of the community coalition Solutions Not Suspensions; and
- Mark French, Minnesota Elementary School Principal’s Association
As co-chairs, they will be in charge of meeting times, keeping the members informed and leading focused discussion. These three individuals bring diverse perspectives on the current education system, which should lead to a robust, well-rounded and fair discussion. The full 22-member roster can be found on the Minnesota Department of Education website.
- Availability of disaggregated data on student removal from class, including suspensions, exclusions, and expulsions;
- The meaning and effect of state law’s reference to “willful” behavior as a grounds for dismissal;
- The impact of student misconduct on teacher safety;
- District and school policies to ensure students of color and English learners are not disproportionately disciplined, dismissed or otherwise held back from opportunity;
- Access to school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists and mental health professionals;
- The role and impact of school resource officers;
- Best practices for school discipline; and
- Any other topics the working group would like to consider.
The working group’s next meeting will be held on Tuesday, August 23, from 1:30-4:00 pm at the Minnesota Department of Education, Conference Center A, Room 13.
As the process moves forward, MinnCAN will continue to work with our partners in the Solutions Not Suspensions coalition to the push for a system that provides students and families a fair process, reduces discipline disparities and allows all Minnesota’s students access to a high-quality public education.
Camille Garcia-Flahaut is a New Sector Alliance Fellow working with MinnCAN between her junior and senior year at Macalester College, where she is majoring in political science with concentrations in human rights and legal studies.