Duke Law Professor explores alternatives to suspensions, expulsions to address disparities, create safe environments
Learn how Minnesota schools can create safe environments that encourage student engagement and achievement from MDHR’s keynote speaker Duke Law Professor Jane Wettach.
With Minnesota’s changing demographics, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights is releasing a presentation to spark discussion about disparities in education regarding suspensions and expulsions, to share innovative research on potential solutions, and to examine the implicit bias in society at the root of the disparities.
At MDHR’s Human Rights Symposium in December, Duke University Law Professor Jane Wettach addressed the negative impacts of suspensions and expulsions and discussed her innovative research on alternative discipline strategies. The presentation framed access to school as a basic human right that is denied to nearly 2 million students nationwide who are suspended every year. These suspensions result in an estimated 18 million lost instructional days. In Minnesota, there were nearly 50,000 suspensions and expulsions resulting in students missing 29,414 days as a result.
Evidence shows that the impacts of suspensions and expulsions are negative. For individual students, Wettach says the data shows there is high correlation between having been suspended and poor academic performance, feeling disconnected from school, truancy, and a later risk of incarceration. Furthermore, research shows little evidence that suspending students improves their behavior in the future. Lastly, schools that use suspensions frequently have not been proven to be safer.
Disparities in Minnesota Schools exist
According to student discipline data reported to the Minnesota Department of Education by charter schools and districts throughout the state during the 2015-16 school year, significant disparities in suspensions and expulsions exist for American-Indian students, African–American students, students of color, and students with disabilities. Under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, these disparate outcomes and this differential treatment has the potential to deny educational access and negatively impact student achievement.
Throughout public schools in Minnesota, the data for the 2015-16 school year showed:
- American-Indian students were ten times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white peers.
- African–American students were eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white peers.
- Students of color were twice more likely to be suspended or expelled than white peers.
- Students with disabilities were twice more likely to be suspended or expelled than their peers without a disability.
Exploring Alternatives to Suspensions and Expulsions
Professor Wettach identifies potential alternative strategies to suspensions and expulsions that encourage student development, improve school climate, increase academic achievement and reduce student misconduct.
"Well-chosen alternatives to suspension can simultaneously diminish the negative outcomes of harmful discipline policies, boost student achievement, reduce student misconduct, and maintain safe and orderly schools," Wettach and co-author Jenni Owen wrote in a report for the Children's Law Center titled Instead of Suspension: Alternative Strategies for Effective School Discipline.
Annually, MDHR has determined that more than half of the decisions made in Minnesota to suspend or expel students involved some level of subjective decision making on the part of school officials, according to MDE student discipline data. More than one-third of all suspensions and expulsions in Minnesota were given to students for engaging in “disruptive behavior, disorderly conduct, and/or insubordination.” Ensuring the successful implementation of corrective practices such as Positive Behavior Intervention Support called PBIS, innocent classroom and restorative justice in schools can reduce the likelihood that school officials will suspend or expel a student while maintaining safe and orderly schools.
"School discipline is about teaching students what is expected of them and helping them find success, ensuring that a healthy learning environment exists and properly supporting teachers--not about punishing a student,” Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said.
“Increasing the use of positive behavioral and emotional interventions will increase student engagement and academic outcomes. Kids cannot learn if they are not in class. The success of Minnesota has and continues to be tied to the success of its children.”
National trends focus on addressing student behavior
Across the country school boards, superintendents, school administrators, teachers, parents and community leaders have recognized that suspending children from school should be a strategy of last resort, wrote Jane Wettach, Duke University Law Professor. This has led many schools and districts to reconsider their approaches to student discipline. In particular, focus has shifted to finding alternatives that will appropriately and effectively address student behavior while keeping them in school.
In the Children's Law Center report, titled Instead of Suspension: Alternative Strategies for Effective School Discipline, Wettach and Owen found:
- Nationally School Districts are reconsidering approaches to student discipline: Focusing on alternatives that allow educators to respond appropriately and effectively when students misbehave, while keeping the students in school and moving forward educationally and behaviorally.
- Alternatives to suspensions can boost student achievement and reduce student misconduct: Well-chosen alternatives to suspension can simultaneously diminish the negative outcomes of harmful discipline policies, boost student achievement, reduce student misconduct, and maintain safe and orderly schools.
- Moving from punishment to student development: With leadership from the top, school discipline can change from a system of punishment to a system of student development.
- Using more effective approaches to problem behaviors can reduce the likelihood of future unemployment, court involvement and other negative outcomes with high societal price tags.