There’s been a lot of talk recently about school discipline, particularly in St. Paul. But the talk seems to be missing a critical component: student voices. I am a current senior at Central High School, which has been at the center of many articles about violence and discipline in schools (many of which I believe are misleading) and oddly enough, it seems like I have had to work especially hard to have a say in the discussion. Although I don’t claim to speak for all students at Central or elsewhere on this issue, I am confident that I’m not alone in my views: we need a new conversation on school discipline, one that elevates the voices of students and other stakeholders, and also focuses on creating safe, supportive and engaging schools for all.
I am a participant in the statewide Solutions Not Suspensions coalition and also serve as co-chair of Minnesota Youth Council’s Education Student Advisory Committee. We are a collaboration of young people and adults working to mobilize and empower youth voice across Minnesota. In this way, we can exercise our ideas and take action on issues impacting us and our peers, and we have identified school discipline as one such issue.
Suspensions and expulsions harm student learning
We know that in order to be successful in college or career, students need ample opportunities in school to learn and thrive. We also know that removing a student from school denies them those opportunities. It is frustrating to see my peers face devastating penalties for mistakes that do not match the severe punishment. Being tardy to class on a few occasions does not justify a suspension.
When suspended, expelled or otherwise removed from class, students can miss lesson plans, schoolwork, peer engagement and much more. This does not place them in a position to apply themselves to their education or school relationships. No one wins in this situation. It does a disservice to students and teachers.
Quite simply, exclusionary discipline harms the disciplined student and might also hurt their classmates. Research actually shows that exclusionary discipline can negatively affect the academic achievement of non-disciplined students.
Alarming disparities in school discipline
It is impossible to ignore the obvious disparities that exist in Minnesota when it comes to school discipline. Certain students, especially students with disabilities, American Indian students and black students, face disproportionately higher rates of punishment.
The Minnesota Department of Education found that, in 2007-08, black students were 5.9 times more likely to be suspended than white students and American Indian students were 6.2 times more likely to be expelled than white students.
In 2014-15, despite making up only 11.5 percent of the statewide K-12 enrollment, black students accounted for a 38.8 percent of statewide disciplinary action. That same year, students with an Individual Education Program (IEP) accounted for 14.9 percent of K-12 enrollment and 52.3 percent of the students involved in a suspension, expulsion or exclusion.
On nearly every measure, Minnesota has some of the largest achievement gaps in the country. By removing too many students from opportunities to learn, I believe our current discipline practices actually contribute to these gaps. In fact, a recent study published by Oxford University Press found that school discipline disparities account for roughly one-fifth of the white-black achievement gap.
“Equity” and “equal opportunity” are not buzzwords. They are necessary factors we need to take into account if we want to ensure the success of our students of color.
The case for alternatives
As a recent Star Tribune article pointed out, there are alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. However, the article focused mostly on school transfers. Transfers are a start, but I don’t think they go nearly far enough. Families should not feel stuck, as if they are forced to decide between a transfer or an expulsion, when what they really want is for their child to stay in their school.
Instead of transferring students to new schools, we need to strive for reengagement. We need to push for even more supportive alternatives that allow students to stay in school and practice positive behavior, supported by educators who are prepared to help students do this.
A roadmap to improve school discipline
This is why I support the “Student Inclusion and Engagement Act” (H.F. 3041 and S.F. 2898), which is being led by two St. Paul legislators during the 2016 state legislative session. This bill would make important changes to state law, with the ultimate goal of supporting districts, schools and educators to help keep students in school and on track for success.
The Student Inclusion and Engagement Act would create clear guidelines on exclusionary discipline, requiring schools to provide and document positive behavior interventions before moving to an exclusionary action. It would establish more consistent and more detailed discipline data collection and reporting, enabling us to know which schools are best improving school discipline and climate, so that we can learn from them what works.
It would also equip teachers with training on the negative impacts of exclusionary discipline and provide support (and funding) to help them implement alternatives. And when kids are suspended or expelled, the bill would make sure they face a fair process, and that their schools develop reengagement plans to ensure that their transition back to school is as smooth as possible.
These reforms focus on working with students, not against them, when they make mistakes or even when they’re simply tardy to class. They also ensure that schools have a wide range of disciplinary options at their disposal, and clear guidelines to help them pick the one that best matches the nature and severity of an incident.
I believe this bill is the first step towards improving school discipline and closing our discipline and achievement gaps. I also believe that this bill is proof of the fact that we need a new conversation on school discipline. When a broad coalition—including students—comes together, and focuses on what is possible, we can come up with innovative, thoughtful strategies to address the challenges schools are facing.
This is what we need: an engaging and inclusive conversation on school discipline, that is focused on making our schools engaging and inclusive, too.
Angela is a senior at St. Paul Central High School. She is set to graduate as a part of the class of 2016. Born and raised in Minnesota, all of her schooling has taken place within the St. Paul Public School district. Her interest in education started in early high school and has stayed with her until today. She has completed fellowships with Breakthrough Twin Cities, Youthprise, Pollen Midwest and currently serves as co-chair on Minnesota Youth Council's Education Committee. Angela hopes to aid in efforts to build bridges, create culturally competent work spaces and close the achievement gap. Along with education, Angela is passionate about women's rights (especially reproductive justice), eliminating mental illness stigmas within and outside immigrant communities, environmental sustainability and racial equity. She intends to major in journalism and political science.
MinnCAN blogging fellowship allows Minnesota students, teachers, administrators and parents to share their thoughts on key education issues. MinnCAN supports fellows seeking to advance the conversation around public education, though fellows' views and opinions are solely their own.