MPS suspension rate drops slightly for black students

A graph showing the percent of black Minneapolis Public Schools students who have been suspended at least once at this point in the school year over the past four years.

Fewer black students have been suspended in Minneapolis Public Schools this year, but the demographic continues to be suspended at a higher rate than other ethnicities, district data show.

About 6.5 percent of black students have at least one suspension this school year, down from 7.4 percent last year, 8.1 percent in 2014-15 and 10.5 percent in 2013-14, according to data last updated May 8.

However, black students continue to be suspended at a rate disproportionate to their share of the overall student population. The demographic comprises 40 percent of the MPS population but has accounted for 75.9 percent of the suspended population this school year. No other ethnic group accounts for more than 8.3 percent of the suspended population.

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District leaders presented the data at the May 23 School Board Committee of the Whole meeting.

Chief of Accountability, Innovation and Research Eric Moore said the district has come up with a common understanding of subjective suspensions, which have decreased significantly.

He praised the district’s overall suspension rate of 3 percent through the third quarter this year, adding that MPS has some of the lowest suspension rates in the country.

MPS is required to conduct an annual review of disciplinary data, per a November 2014 agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The agreement came after an OCR investigation found that black students were overrepresented in the district’s disciplinary actions.

The district updated its behavior-standards policy before the 2014-15 school year. The updated policy created a five-tier behavior system that guides disciplinary action and places restrictions on when students can be removed from a classroom because of behavior.

Suspensions and disciplinary referrals have decreased across the district since the policy was implemented. Suspensions are down 44.2 percent this school year in comparison to 2013-14, while the total number of referrals is down 68 percent.

First-year Superintendent Ed Graff said at the meeting that the goal of these meetings isn’t to just give a report to the board, but also to inform district practices.

He added that another goal is to create a system wherein district leaders can break the data down to specifics such as grade level and time of day in which the infractions are occurring.

Middle school suspensions down

Moore also presented data showing a decrease in the suspension rate for middle school students, especially for eighth-graders.

Eighth-graders had an 8.9 percent suspension rate through the first three quarters of the 2015-16 school year, a rate that dropped to 6.5 percent through the first three quarters of this school year.

Middle school students typically have higher-than-average suspension rates, district data show. Associate Superintendent for middle schools Jackie Hanson said middle school is a time of inner-struggle for students, who are figuring out who they are and who they want to be.

“There’s testing the limits, there’s trying to figure out who your friends are going to be, there’s, can I say it, Facebook, and conflict, a lot of conflict and confusion within middle school kids,” she said.

Anwatin Middle School Principal Ellen Shulman said the Jamar Clark shooting last year and events surrounding it contributed to the school’s higher suspension rate. Anwatin had a 19.8 percent suspension rate through this point last year, compared with a 10 percent rate this year.

Shulman added that some of her students have significant social and emotional needs, noting that some have lived in crisis for a long time.

Olson Middle School Principal Steve Emerson said he’d like the district to think about how it can reduce student mobility and turnover, noting that eighth-graders who were at the school as sixth-graders have fewer behavioral incidents.

He said his teachers are taught to think about students as “cultural beings” and to ask if certain behaviors are part of the student culture.

Sanford Middle School Principal Emily Palmer said her school traded teacher-coaches for more student support in their budget. The school has someone dedicated to bringing students back into the community after a suspension, a process that can be time intensive.

Shulman added that she thinks that teachers should also be well-versed in the restorative process.

North High School Principal Shawn Harris Berry and Wellstone International High School Principal Aimee Fearing also addressed some of the student supports in their schools. Harris Berry said the school’s advisory program, in which a teacher is responsible for the academic, social and emotional needs of about 10 to 12 students, not only helps the student but helps the parents reenter into a relationship with the school.

Fearing said Wellstone has two full-time counselors and two full-time social workers, all of whom are bilingual, but that those positions are expensive to maintain.

“When you’re thinking of small schools, you can imagine what percentage of support we’re putting into those students,” she said.

SRO debate begins

The meeting concluded with a presentation by Chief Operations Office Karen DeVet on school resource officers, the use of whom has come under scrutiny in recent years.

The district is currently in the final months of a one-year, $1.275 million contract extension for the SROs, which runs through June 30.

DeVet presented three scenarios for the School Board to consider: one in which the district would maintain the existing SRO program and modify the contract; another in which it would reduce the number of SROs and enhance “centralized supports;” and a third in which it would eliminate the SRO program and support schools for site-based “security management.”

She said the district will engage the community on the issue over the next five to six weeks, of which board members appeared to approve.

Chronic absenteeism up

The presentation also included data on chronic absenteeism, which increased in the third quarter this school year.

Nearly 25 percent of MPS students were considered chronically absent, up from 20.9 percent in quarter two and 14.8 percent in quarter one. Among high school students, 37.4 percent were considered chronically absent in the third quarter.

The district defines chronic absence as having less than 90 percent daily attendance. The calculation includes both excused and unexcused absences.

The data show that the chronic-absence rate increased in the second and third quarters last year, too. The rate has increased to a greater extent this year, however.

Moore, the chief of accountability, innovation and research, said he was alarmed when first saw the data. However, he said the third-quarter increase could be because the district is doing a better job retaining high-risk students, who generally have more absences.