Minnesota Educators Weigh in on Student Discipline Debate Unfolding in D.C

By Hinrichs, Erin | MinnPost.com, December 5, 2017 | Go to article overview

Minnesota Educators Weigh in on Student Discipline Debate Unfolding in D.C


Hinrichs, Erin, MinnPost.com


A few weeks ago, two former Minnesota teachers joined U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' colleagues in Washington, D.C., to make a case for rolling back Obama-era guidance on student discipline. This Friday, a handful of Minnesota educators, advocates and parents will be making that same trek to offer a counterpoint argument at a public hearing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The guidance in question, issued via a “Dear Colleague Letter on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline” in 2014, laid out the fact that students of color — African-American students, in particular — are disproportionately impacted by exclusionary discipline policies and practices. Research has shown that such gaps cannot be attributed to students of color simply acting out more frequently or in more extreme ways, the letter says. Rather, the discipline data and research suggest that students of color are being held to different standards when it comes to behavior expectations.

“In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem,” read a line in the letter.

This translates into a disproportionate loss of instructional time for students of color who are sent out of the classroom, often for subjective infractions like defiance. Framed as a civil rights issue — since studies have linked exclusionary discipline policies and practices with adverse impacts on students’ trajectories like reduced engagement and academic achievement, and an increased likelihood of dropping out and ending up in the juvenile justice system — the letter lays out guidance to “ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to learn and grow in school.”

In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has played a pretty significant role in singling out Minnesota districts that have discipline disparities and then holding them publicly accountable for taking steps to reduce those disparities. If, in fact, the feds plan to take a less aggressive stance on this issue, where does that leave Minnesota schools? Or, more important, where does that leave students whose access to the classroom may be unfairly impacted by a teacher’s implicit or explicit racial bias?

A strong Minnesota presence

The two Minnesota representatives who flew to D.C. to voice concerns over these Obama-era guidelines have been critics of local attempts to reduce discipline disparities. Former St. Paul teacher John Ekblad sued the district last year after suffering a concussion and traumatic brain injury from a student assault. Former Edina teacher Debbie York also resigned after allegedly being injured by a student. Their testimonies support the opposition’s narrative: that increased pressure placed on teachers and administrators to keep misbehaving students in the classroom, in order to meet “racial quotas,” has backfired to the point of becoming a safety issue.

According to media reports, Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation — which participate in the meeting along with the Center of the American Experiment in Minnesota, a conservative think tank — confirmed that both Minnesota teachers shared their stories, in a pitch to rescind the federal guidance.

Minnesotans of a different mindset will soon be making their case before federal officials in D.C. at a public hearing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is scheduled for Dec. 8. The Minnesota chapter of Educators for Excellence will be sending a teacher who works in the Minneapolis Public Schools district. Ed Allies, a local education reform group, will be represented by Josh Crosson, its senior policy director. And the local Solutions Not Suspensions campaign will send parent and community representatives, with the support of travel scholarships from the Dignity in Schools Campaign, its national parent group.

“I think the narrative that’s coming from some of these teachers around the violence perpetrated against teachers aligns really well with the current administration’s thinking. …

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