Grant money in hand, Denfeld seeks new view of disciplineBacked by a state grant, Denfeld High School will search for new ways to deal with bad behavior by students without suspending them from classes.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
Backed by a state grant, Denfeld High School will search for new ways to deal with bad behavior by students without suspending them from classes.
Last school year, students were given 128 in-school or out-of-school suspensions in the roughly 1,250-student school, according to Principal Tonya Sconiers. That number caused her to seek a Minnesota Department of Education Alternatives to Suspension grant worth $20,000. Denfeld is part of a group of Minnesota schools, including those in Winona and St. Cloud, that are trying to do the same.
“There is no question, when kids are in school they learn more and do better in life,” Sconiers said. “This grant gives us an opportunity to take a critical look at the factors related to suspension and how to best educate kids within the school setting.”
Data analyzed by Sconiers and others show that of those 128 suspensions, one-third were for students of color and 61 percent were for students who receive special education services. The numbers also overwhelmingly show that males were suspended more often than females, Sconiers said. Students who receive free and reduced-price lunch were also suspended more often than those who don’t.
The disparity in those numbers is something the grant money will help educators address, Sconiers said, along with ways to train staff to become more “culturally competent” in dealing with behavior issues.
At Tuesday’s School Board meeting, Superintendent Bill Gronseth addressed the importance of this part of the grant:
“It’s not just student behavior that’s involved,” he said. “It’s recognizing it is culture … it is misunderstanding special education disabilities, the effect of poverty and recognizing when it’s those things in the classroom that are becoming problems with behavior.”
Gronseth said instruction will be offered on dealing with students so that teachers “aren’t being the cause of acceleration of behaviors which leads to the suspensions.”
According to a state education department fact sheet regarding the Alternatives to Suspension grant, “Inadequate teacher training in classroom management and in culturally competent practices may be a factor in the disproportionality of discipline for students of color.”
Gronseth said he’s been analyzing suspension data for each school in the district, comparing it to state and national numbers. He plans a district-wide project on his findings.
The Proctor school district has had the same state grant for a few years. Data from the state education department shows that before 2009, Proctor High School students were suspended at a higher rate than the state average, with an over-represented number of students who get special education services receiving suspensions. After use of the grant, the number of suspensions decreased from 41 out-of-school suspensions in 2008-09 to 16 in 2010-11. The number of students suspended who receive special education services decreased from 14 in 2008-09 to nine in 2010-11.
Sconiers said plans aren’t set, but she gave some examples last week of what alternatives could be. If a student is caught drinking, generally the student is suspended for three days, she said.
“What about meeting with a chemical specialist?” she asked. “What are the needs that student has? Can we return them to school sooner?”
If students get in a physical fight, mediation could be a possibility, she said.
“Here in Duluth, sometimes we are pretty cut and dried,” she said. “The policy book is very heavy on what some might consider a punitive system.”
She also suggested working with the business community to see if it can lend support in the way of mentoring or internships.
According to state data, the top reason for suspensions in Minnesota in 2009-10 was disruptive/disorderly conduct or insubordination. Last year, Denfeld also had higher numbers in that category, along with the categories of assault and fighting, according to district data.
Educators will study a different kind of support system for students, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach. They know what works for 80 percent of the students, Sconiers said, but “we want more support for that targeted population.”
Sconiers has been working with the St. Louis County Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and has been told that students who are suspended out of school are far more likely to commit crimes.
“And when out of school,” she said, “learning is not happening.”