Black and Brown Students: Kumbaya, You’re Suspended

 You can’t both call for restorative discipline and grease the school-to-prison pipeline


Let’s make a deal. Let’s add “restorative discipline” to the stack of terms that have officially taken on so many disparate meanings to so many people desperate to cloak their agendas in a gloss of progressivism as to have become junk. It’s turning out to be the school-to-prison variant of #fakequity.

I’m thinking about it because Minneapolis Public Schools has posted the materials related to its current contract talks with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers on its website and I’m catching up. And wow is the union’s proposal just hand-in-glove with the school board’s posture toward school climate: Lots of white liberal yakking that amounts, in the end, to doubling down on the status quo.

Let’s back up a few weeks. In August the Minneapolis School Board voted to decrease the number of school resource officers – Minneapolis police officers – in schools from 16 to 14. There was tons of talk of “soft” uniforms and more study of the problem and racial disparities and a couple of impassioned “we hate this question” speeches from directors Kim Ellison and Don Samuels.

But in the end – and after multiple parliamentary efforts to rein in board member Kerry Jo Felder, who perhaps had been briefed with alternative facts – the board voted 8-1 to keep the officers. Merits of the decision aside, it perhaps at least marked the moment when a board majority that had courted the white liberal constituency that opposes, pro forma, any inequities, made a sharp turn toward the status quo.

And here we are, two-plus months on, and the union has made restorative discipline a centerpiece of its freighted contract negotiations. The proposal front and center: To mandate, via the contract, “positive, inclusive and relationship-centered learning environments.”

“We recognize the role institutional and structural racism and systems of oppression deeply embedded in our social institutions has in our schools and how that impacts school climates,” one MFT proposal says. The “how” amounts, so far as I can tell, to studying the problem further and attempting to draw on community resources. Lots of committees.

Implicit bias — the unconscious and largely unnoticed teacher posture toward children of color – is a major factor in racial disparities in discipline. Intentions notwithstanding a white teacher is more likely to perceive the behavior of a student of color as defiant or disruptive than that of a white student. This has a direct and immediate impact – so much so that under Barack Obama, both Minneapolis and St. Paul schools were under U.S. Justice Department orders to deal with disparate impact.

In Minneapolis, black students are six times more likely than their white peers to be suspended in a given year. For every white student suspended, there are 10 black ones. Three suspensions by ninth grade and the statistical likelihood a student graduates drops to hashmarks.

Black students are 18 percent of preschoolers, but account for 48 percent of suspensions. Pre-k suspensions. Sit with that a minute. What could a sizeable number of students that small do that would require excluding them from school?

In 2015, Minneapolis’ teacher corps was 87 percent white. In response to this, the district won permission to conduct “grow your own” teacher training programs for potential special education teachers and educators of color. (Side note: A program modeled on the Teach for America training model, unionists seem to have conveniently forgotten.)

All of this has received extensive ink in the last couple of years, mobilizing social justice communities in a way our nation-leading academic achievement gaps didn’t. With the result that crowds have packed school board meetings to demand serious attention be paid to the school-to-prison pipeline.

The current school board is dominated by members in the past have been loath to challenge either the teachers’ union or Minneapolis’ wealthy liberals. Indeed, the MFT has borrowed the “branding” – their word, not mine – of unions elsewhere to depict the current talks as revolving around the schools our kids deserve. And that of course doesn’t involve prison.

Enter restorative discipline, which has become something of a junk term that on the positive end of the spectrum encompasses protocols and norms in which all members of a school community formally reflect on their role in school culture and consider the biases they perhaps didn’t know they brought to the classroom.

On the other end of the spectrum, it can turn into in-school suspensions, a physical place for a teacher to send a troublesome student to, in the hope that she or he comes back contrite. Detention, but “staffed by a caring adult.”

So how outrageous is it that the MFT is calling for restorative discipline on one hand, albeit in a very “let’s convene about best practices way” way, and yet elsewhere in its contractual demands calls for firm and inviolable consequences for the same issues it purports to want to deal with in a new way.

Tucked into “Teacher Rights and Responsibilities” is a laundry list of troublesome trajectories and behaviors MFT wishes to shield its teachers from. The list includes demands the district reject requests to accept transfer students who have histories of behavioral problems – physical or verbal – consider the placement of said students in “alternative” programs and not return them to the classroom from which they were referred out.

No teacher should be forced to endure violent behavior. Nor should their students. My objection isn’t that. Nor does this need to be bargained in the contract: Assault is a legal issue, not a workplace item.

There’s absolutely nothing in these proposals suggesting adults may need to consider their part of the equation in terms of how friction boils over in schools. No concession that perhaps the teacher’s perception in a given interaction might need revisiting. No mention of the racial imbalance in school staffing, which a trove of research pinpoints as a key driver of this problem.

Nope, it’s all on the students. Be different or be shipped out. How restorative is that? And oh hey – that Black Lives Matter sign in your yard? You want to own your talk or mostly just feel okay about yourself as the social justice warrior who deserves props for their efforts to fix “those” kids?

It’s possible, in 2017, to identify teachers who abuse the ability to send kids out of the classroom. To identify the classrooms where teachers have equally volatile students and who are working on confronting their own privilege and what they might do differently. To help those who are determined to do better but feeling afraid and isolated identify colleagues from whom they might learn?

Is using that data –maybe by teams of educators with facilitators — in the contract?


Do we really think a school board that’s doing a remarkable job pivoting from loyal opposition status to defenders of the status quo is going to challenge this?


I submit: Whenever someone says “restorative discipline,” let’s demand they break that down. Let’s ask for the specifics on how student behavior will shift, certainly. But let’s hold out for the other half of the equation, the changes in adult practice that will enable students to see and respond to something truly different.

Board or union, anything else is window dressing. Call it out. See it for the theatrical #fakequity posturing it is. Our kids deserve better. Let’s make sure they get it.


More Comments