Empty Classroom


Youth Voice: The Hidden Practice Pushing Students Out of School

Grace Schleisman

This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.

When most people talk about the problems with suspending or expelling students, they’re probably referring to zero-tolerance discipline policies. These policies automatically expel or suspend a student who brings a gun or drugs to school or is involved in a fight, and though well-intentioned, they often go too far, contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, and unfairly discriminate against students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students.

Though it’s important to shine a light on these issues, there’s another practice in Minnesota that can be just as harmful, but doesn’t get the same attention: suspending or expelling students for “discretionary violations.”

Under Minnesota law, educators can dismiss youth if the “willful conduct...significantly disrupts the rights of others to an education.” There are a few major problems with this.

The Problem with Discretionary Violations

One, the law does not require educators to ask students some underlying questions around their behavior before dismissing the student. Rather, it asks for the educator to decide, one way or the other, about how “willful” the behavior is. Similarly, “disruptive” is just as broad of a descriptor.

Second, that language is highly subjective. What might feel disruptive for one student or teacher is not disruptive to another.  For example, when a student refuses to take out their pencil for class, one teacher may send them to the office whereas another teacher might try to redirect the behavior. Administration and educators are often allowed to make the subjective decision about who belongs in the classroom and who does not.

During the 2015-2016 MN school year, disruptive/disorderly conduct made up the highest percentage of discipline issues at 36.79 percent, according to the 2017 Dangerous Weapons and Disciplinary Incidents report. Fighting, which falls under the zero-tolerance discipline policy, came in as the second highest at 17.77 percent.

Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul
Under Minnesota State Law, educators can dismiss youth if the “willful conduct...significantly disrupts the rights of others to an education.” But what qualifies as disruptive? Pictured above: Minnesota State Capitol.

Just like zero-tolerance policies, these practices are often tinged with racial bias. According to this 2015 Minnesota Department of Education report on teacher supply and demand, 96.5 percent of teachers in the state of Minnesota are white. This is critical to know when we see that, for example, black youth in Minnesota are seven times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white youth.

This does not mean that more black youth are breaking rules; it simply points to a number of systemic issues lying within the administration. One of these significant issues is implicit racial bias.

Implicit Racial Bias Causes Low Expectations

2015 study from the Economics of Education Review examined whether student-teacher demographic mismatch affects high school teachers’ expectations for students’ educational attainment. The study found that “non-black teachers of black students have significantly lower expectations than do black teachers.”

Empty Classroom
Research shows white teachers are more likely to have low expectations of black students, which ultimately pushes these students out of the school system. Photo credit: Victor Björkund.

These low academic expectations for black students by some teachers can also apply to the behavior expectations of black students and other students of color; they are often expected to be more disruptive and less focused when compared to their white peers.

Racial bias, among other forms of discrimination, is clearly at play when we examine the pushout effect and start questioning the differences in discipline decisions from student to student. There are clear systems of power and oppression that impact how decisions get made by teachers and administrators, preventing students from staying on track to graduation and increasing the odds they’ll end up in the prison system.

You might not hear a news story about the students who are sent home for not taking out their pencils. You might not read many articles about the students who are suspended because they can’t sit still in their desks. But there is danger in “discretionary violations,” and we can’t afford to overlook them.

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