Report looks at solutions for school climate, discipline issues

Educators throughout Minnesota want their students to come to school feeling safe and ready to learn. But what kinds of things are going on in the lives of many of our students that make it difficult to learn? And what kinds of practices in our schools are making things even harder for these kids?

These are the questions that the latest paper from Education Minnesota’s Educator Policy Innovation Center wanted to answer.

“From Exclusionary to Restorative: An Intentional, Trauma-Sensitive Approach to Interrupting Racial Disparities, Reducing Violence, Strengthening Communities and Accelerating Student Learning” looks at moving a school structure from one that focuses on exclusionary interventions, like suspensions, to trauma-informed, restorative practices. The paper will be available on the Education Minnesota website in the next month.

The EPIC paper was crafted by nine educators from throughout the state and looks at the problem of how our education system has come to over-rely on exclusionary discipline in the form of suspension and expulsion and how that over-reliance on exclusion has created a school-to-prison pipeline that unfairly targets students of color and that has done nothing to mitigate violence or disruptive behavior in schools.

The paper recommends that schools move away from this myopic focus on student behavior and step back to consider the tremendous gains being made by schools that are adopting trauma-informed, restorative practices.

“We want to show our students that they matter,” said Gwen Johnson, an occupational therapist with Intermediate District 916. “Our kids know how to break relationships, but they don’t know how to keep them. They should feel a part of a community. We can fix it.”

The problem with exclusionary discipline
A 2016 Minnesota Department of Education report on dangerous weapons and disciplinary incidents found that there were 46,452 disciplinary incidents in schools across the state. Sixty-five percent of public schools in Minnesota reported at least one act of violence.

These incidents were most commonly dealt with by the student or students serving an out-of-school suspension.

Research shows that expulsions and suspensions do little in the way of teaching students to be accountable for their behavior and nothing in the way of allowing students the opportunity to repair the harm done. They do, however, cut the student off from the structured learning environment that school provides, and too often add layers of further trauma on kids already living with high levels of toxic stress.

“As a special educator in St. Paul, I have seen many instances where students are punished, without necessarily knowing the full story or allowing their voice to be heard,” said Rebecca Wade, a teacher on leave serving as the coordinator of professional development for the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers. “Students can’t learn if they are not in school. As a system, we need to do better to welcome students into school and do everything we can to keep them there. Some of the policies in place in our education system work against this belief—and actually perpetuate the pushing out of students, particularly students of color.”

Minnesota has the sixth highest racial discipline gap when it comes to white versus African-American students. One out of every five African-American students is suspended, when one out of every 40 white students is suspended. And there is no proof these students misbehave at higher rates.

Research shows that exclusionary interventions have failed all non-white ethnic groups. One out of six, or 17 percent, of African-American students will face an exclusionary intervention, as will 8 percent of Native American students and 7 percent of Hispanic students.

Other groups disproportionately harmed by exclusionary interventions are special education students and LGBTQ youth.

“Everyone across the state is having the same issues,” said Becky Hespen, an education support professional from Osseo and president of Education Minnesota-Osseo ESPs. “What are we doing wrong? How come we’re not seeing any difference? We don’t want to unknowingly add more trauma onto kids.”

“It’s a fallacy that it is just happening in urban areas,” said Kim Davidson, an elementary teacher from Crookston. “We see it happening all the time in our rural district.”

Trauma affects the brain, behavior
Research from the 1990s shows how prevalent childhood trauma is and what childhood trauma does to the developing brain.

When a student has been exposed to childhood trauma, their brain, nervous system and biology changes and how they react to their surroundings is drastically affected.

“The memory of our experiences is literally stored in our body, not just our brain,” said Dr. Mark Sander, a senior clinical psychologist for Hennepin County and the director of school mental health for Hennepin County and Minneapolis Public Schools, during a presentation at last year’s MEA conference. “Our biological responses might not always be a choice. Instead of asking a student ‘What’s wrong with you,’ we need to ask them ‘What happened to you?”

“I had a high behavior student last year that was really out of my control,” said April Jackson, an elementary teacher in Roseville. “I left last year upset and defeated, because I felt like I had given my all to the student and wasn’t given the support I needed with the student to help them be successful.”

Researchers developed a scale of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) to tackle how experiences affect our biology.

In a study of Minnesota students, 55 percent had an ACE score of one or higher. Of those who have one or more ACES, 60 percent have had two and 15 percent have had five or more.
“Schools, educators and families working together can minimize the impact that these experiences have on kids—which will lead to more involvement and engagement in school and more positive outcomes as students grow into adults,” said Wade.

What schools can do
The paper recommends educators receive trauma-informed training as part of their professional development.

The training equips educators to recognize the fight, flight or freeze response, including withdrawals, that students with ACE scores experience, and to understand that when a student is in that triggered response, he or she is not making conscious decisions. The training also quips educators with tools to help students with high ACE scores develop resiliency and teaching them, over time and through stable relationships, to recognize the difference between the real threats and the triggers that look like threats.

Integrating restorative practices in schools are also needed to help all students succeed.
Restorative practices in schools seek to use non-exclusionary methods as much as possible in order to hold students accountable for their behavior and hopefully prevent the behavior in the first place.

In restorative schools, time is spent early and often on community building. Circles, where discussion and understanding are key components, are often used as a regular part of the community building and maintenance. And when bad behavior starts, restorative schools focus on repairing the harm with all of the affected stakeholders.

“So many times, we hear that educators call for help, someone comes and takes a student out the room, then their back and nothing was resolved,” said Nick Faber, a science teacher in St. Paul and vice president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers. “In our restorative justice sites, we are hearing that there are more supports. The kid has an opportunity to share too.”

Research has shown that trauma-informed, restorative-based interventions have:

  • Reduced punitive disciplinary actions and problematic behavior over time.
  • Provided greater respect for educators across racial and ethnic groups.
  • Reduced the differences in the number of misconduct and defiance referrals issued to Asian, White, Latino and African-American student groups.
  • Increased student connectedness.
  • Improved student academic achievement, including credit accrual and progression toward graduation.
  • Improved student climate.

The EPIC report recommends that in order to get there, Minnesota schools need to:

  •  Promote trauma-informed schools and restorative practice.
  • Reduce exclusionary interventions.
  • Change zero-tolerance mindsets.
  • Fully-fund ongoing professional development for all staff.
  •  Build more community schools.
  • Hire adequate student services staff, such as counselors, speech-language pathologists, social workers and nurses.

What is EPIC?
Education Minnesota started the Educator Policy Innovation Center (EPIC) in 2015 to make sure that educators are at the forefront of policy decisions that impact our students, educators, schools and communities.

EPIC brings together teams of educators to provide research-proven solutions to the challenges faced in our schools. The teams of educators dig into academic research on a topic, share their own experiences and decide what policy proposals best solve the challenge being discussed. They produce an academic research paper outlining their proposals; present the papers to media, colleagues and policy makers; and communicate their proposals on social media, in opinion pieces and on blogs.

What topics does EPIC cover?
EPIC committees have covered the topics of student testing, full-service community schools, pre-K, teacher recruitment and retention and now student behavior and school climate.

Submit your ideas for future topics online at

Why participate in EPIC?
Some of the participants of the last paper shared the following thoughts about the process:

“I would say I was surprised because of the amount of time and effort that goes into putting a paper like this together. How we as educators were able to have a voice in something that is so important to many schools throughout Minnesota. I am happy that I took this opportunity because it really has given me a voice and has gotten me to feel more comfortable in speaking my truth.”
– April Jackson, Roseville

“The process was really creative. There were full days, multiple days, of staff wanting our feedback.”
– David Wicklund, Mounds View