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Minneapolis halts suspensions for its youngest students

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The Minneapolis School District has put a moratorium on suspensions for students in prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade for nonviolent behavioral issues, district officials have announced.

“For some of our youngest scholars, this is their first time in a structured learning environment,” Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said. “Understanding and navigating the new rules and environment simply takes longer for some students than for others. This moratorium is part of our overall strategy to reduce suspensions at all grade levels.”

The new policy is also part of a broader effort to close an "achievement gap" in which white students traditionally outperform their minority student peers in standardized testing, school officials say. MPR News last year found 14 percent of African-American students were suspended in 2012, compared to 2 percent of white students. And Johnson has stressed that when students are not in school, they are not learning. (You can hear more from Johnson about the policy shift in a lengthy MPR interview Friday morning.)

The new policy comes in the wake of increased scrutiny of suspension policies in Minneapolis and in districts nationwide.

Minneapolis district suspension policies are being investigated by civil rights officials inside the U.S. Department of Education, after the department audited 11 districts nationwide, the the Star Tribune has noted.

And in August, a Star Tribune report revealed suspensions for Minneapolis kindergartners through fourth-graders jumped 32 percent in the past year, from 889 to 1,175.

'Stake in the ground'

Johnson told principals and teachers about the new policy Thursday, the Star Tribune reported. A teachers union representative told the newspaper that teachers prefer not to operate under a blanket edict that determines “by rote how a student will or will not be disciplined,” the newspaper reports.

But Johnson put the new policy into place effective immediately.

A big problem with suspensions, Johnson has said, is that they are hard on working parents. And there's this: Suspensions don't work, she said.

"We're socializing behavior," Johnson told MPR News. "If we start showing a kindergartener that he or she can throw a tantrum on the floor, or throw a book, and then we suspend the kid, we've shown the kid you can do this again, and can go home, and see 'Sesame Street' and have cookies and milk."

District officials plan to review the new policy and possibly expand it to higher grade levels, officials say.

“The superintendent is putting a stake in the ground," Board of Education Chairman Richard Mammen said. "Our youngest learners need to be in class. Their first school experiences can have a huge impact on their engagement in the learning process throughout their lives.”

Minneapolis not alone

Minneapolis is hardly alone – districts nationwide are re-examining whether their discipline and suspension policies are fair and effective.

In St. Paul, Superintendent Valeria Silva has tasked a new group to give her recommendations for changes she might make in the new school year. Included in the group are five teachers who publicly challenged Silva as they sought consequences for disruptive students in their classrooms.

Federal data in recent years has shown minority students face tougher disciplines than their white peers, and they more often have less experienced teachers and less access to advanced courses. Black students are more than three-and-a-half times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

"The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters two years ago.

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