Sent Home: The Suspension Gap

James Walsh, Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul), May 19, 2008

Keenan Hooper likes to joke around and admits he has a motormouth. He also admits to getting into trouble again and again with teachers weary of his antics. School officials have sent him home more times than Keenan or his mom can count. So often, in fact, during his past couple years at Jackson Middle School in Champlin that he was referred to special education for a “behavioral disability” and saw his grades plummet.

This is not what Keisha Hooper wants for her son, who is black. She said she has asked how sending him away is helping.

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Black students in Minnesota are being suspended at a rate about six times that of white students, according to a Star Tribune analysis of state Department of Education data. Some are sent home for serious misbehavior, like fighting or drugs. But most are suspended for lesser incidents, such as talking in class, goofing around or challenging teachers—offenses for which there is more disciplinary leeway.

Black children across the country are suspended more often than whites. But Minnesota’s suspensions disparity is twice the national average.

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In Osseo schools, black students make up 22 percent of the enrollment but 62 percent of the students suspended.

In Eden Prairie, where black enrollment is 9 percent, 41 percent of the students suspended were black.

And in Wayzata, 35 percent of the students suspended were black, while black students were 7 percent of enrollment. Nearly every Minnesota school district with black students suspends them at rates higher than whites.

The consequences, educators say, are especially significant because Minnesota already has one of the nation’s largest achievement gaps between black and white students, as measured by test scores and graduation rates. Kicking black students out of class may be widening that gap at a time when it’s becoming increasingly important to close it, some educators say.

“You can’t teach them if they are not there,” said St. Paul schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who has made cutting the number of suspensions—especially those imposed for more subjective reasons—a priority. “If you’re really serious about closing an achievement gap, you have got to go deeper. You’ve got to bore deep [into suspensions].”

Many educators say the cause of the disparity is a complex web, with threads running from cultural differences to breakdowns in some families to evolving definitions of what’s effective teaching.

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“If kids believe that we love them and we are passionate about what we do, they want to work for that relationship,” said Kate Maguire, assistant superintendent for leadership, teaching and learning in the Osseo schools. “When you have a roomful of students who look like you, perhaps those relationships are easier. When they are different, it makes the intentionality of building those relationships ever more important.”

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Zero tolerance

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The most common reason for suspension in Minnesota is “disruptive behavior,” a broad category that includes laughing during a test and running around in the classroom. And it may be the category in which the decisions of teachers and principals are most subjective.

At Hopkins West Jr. High, officials meted out 20 suspensions for “disrespect.” In the Anoka-Hennepin schools, nearly 3,400 suspensions were handed down to middle school students for “disrespectful, insubordination or language” reasons. Of the more than 500 children in kindergarten through third grade who were suspended in St. Paul last year, half were sent home for behavior for which district policy does not require suspension.

“Teachers have to develop more tolerance. And the only way they can get that is through teacher training,” said Roger Banks, a research analyst for the Council on Black Minnesotans. “Discipline is a teaching moment. This is where your abilities as a teacher come into play.”

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Suspending students for being loud does more harm than good, said Philip Miner, director of community initiatives for the Minnesota Private College Council.

“My greatest concern with the data is this: I am of the mind that if you separate a kid from the classroom, learning stops,” Miner said. “When we overlay that reality with the demographic data that suggests too few students of color graduate from high school, how do you reconcile the fact that we are bumping so many kids out of class and breaking their link with academic progress?”

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