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Blacks, American Indians, male students and those with disabilities were far more likely to be suspended, continuing longstanding disparities. – Pioneer Press, 11/25

Suspensions in Saint Paul Public Schools remain a huge concern.  The Saint Paul Pioneer Press recently reported on the suspension rates for the district from last year to now. The article points out, among many things, that suspension rates for white students have gone down while suspension rates for African American and Native American students is on the rise.

After reading the article, I began to wonder if these numbers could be related to the recent firing of Superintendent Valeria Silva. I prefer to call it a staged coup actually.  So what does the firing of Valeria Silva have to do with rising suspension rates for Black and Native students? Well, last year, I kept hearing rumblings from the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers that her policies (mainstreaming special education students, Talking Beyond Diversity Training, and the end of suspensions for “willful defiance”) were causing “chaos in schools.” At the same time, there were some fights that broke out across SPPS. Teachers quickly jumped on the highly publicized fights as a way to attack Valeria’s policies.

So what did the teachers do when they had to stop suspending  little Black and Brown bodies? They took over the schools with 4 new board members, bought and paid for by the union. These new members were sworn in and before we knew it, Valeria Silva was gone.

This school year students at the High School For Recording Arts (HSRA) joined the national week of action against school push-out (Solutions Not Suspensions Coalition in MN & Dignity in Schools). Students educated their peers, collected stories, did live performances, and held a candidate forum. The candidate forum hosted Senator Pappas and Rep Rena Moran as well as a Republican candidate seeking to unseat Moran. A parent asked the panel about their plans to address the school to prison pipeline.

Senator Pappas responded that a school to prison pipeline does not exists and claimed that there is no data –other than anecdotes–to support the claim.

So let’s take a look at some of these anecdotes by which she is so unmoved:

One student is suspended more than 100 times in one school year at Humboldt High school for one of the following:

  • Event:  Disorderly Conduct -Details: Student was play-fighting in the hallway. Resolution 1: Dismissal, more than one half day
  • Event: Absence, Chronic Truancy- Participant Details: Tyrese is on the no pass list and I saw him wandering the 2nd floor hallway with one of the McCune twins.
  • Event: Absence, Tardiness Role: Participant Details: Student is 5+ minutes late for 2nd period class. Has 7 tardies this period, 23 total. Resolution 1: Dismissal, more than one half day
  • Event: Absence, Chronic Truancy-Participant Details: Student did not attend his geometry class. This is his second time being truant today. Resolution 1: Dismissal, less than one half day
  • Event: Disorderly Conduct- Participant Details: Student was play fighting in the hallway. Resolution 1: Dismissal, more than one half day

Quite remarkably, one student explains that it is the policy of his school, Humboldt High School, to automatically dismiss students for the rest of the day if they are caught in the hallway without a pass. If the the student gets mad about the dismissal and vents that anger (slams door, curses), upon their return the following day they are informed that they are now being suspended for ‘anger’ and must return with a parent if they are to be allowed to resume classes. According to the same student, since so many parents are at work during the school day, the re-suspended students just don’t come back.

A different student from Humboldt High School says:

I was always getting kicked out of class and suspended for no reason. I was watched by teachers, administrators and School Resource Officers because I was labeled “a behavior problem.” I had to work in the office with the behavior teacher…I got suspended for arguing with a teacher about work I turned, but he said I didn’t…

Another student talks about suspensions in general:

I feel that kids are judged by stereotypes. Because people think we are aggressive and short tempered, they want to kick us out and send us home….White kids don’t get suspended for doing the same things we do..schools are not meant for Black kids…they don’t teach us about ourselves..teachers show attention to White, and the Black kids are more likely to get assigned to seats in the back.

And a fourth student talks about their experience:

When I was at Humboldt my counselor asked me why was “wasting my time at school — school wasn’t for me.

And lastly, another student shared:

I just left. My mom got frustrated because this one teacher kept calling me boy, and I told him I am not his boy.

The experiences shared by these students are just the tip of the iceberg. More scary is that it seems that the excessive suspensions of black and brown kids is happening by design.  No blacks. No muslims. No bangers. No pregnant girls. No Burmese. No “juveniles delinquents.” These are the stereotypes that not only students but I myself  have to confront each day. It feels like certain kids are disposable, like yesterday’s trash; this is heartbreaking for me because almost all of them look like me.  Am I to believe that as a group we are so traumatized that our kids are damaged goods from the time they enter kindergarten? Because that’s when it starts. That’s when little black kids begin to hear that they are not good enough. Black students are disproportionately suspended from class, starting as early as preschool, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Education collected from all public school districts during the 2013–2014 school year. Outgoing Secretary of Education John King has said publicly that the data shows that students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities are facing serious educational inequities, including when it comes to school discipline and suspensions.

At the most recent school board meeting in Saint Paul, board members pointed to Restorative Justice as a reason to be hopeful that suspensions will decrease. But it’s hard to be confident when only six schools district wide have implemented a restorative model. How can the school board let business as usual continue after seeing the disparity in the suspension numbers?

Education cannot be the great equalizer if students are pushed out, sent home, and told there is something wrong with them because the system is working just fine. I cannot and will not sit idly by while I see children who look just like me losing out on their chance to learn. I cannot and will not sit idly by while black and brown students are kicked out of school and sent home for minor infractions.  I cannot and will not sit idly by when the Pioneer Press is reporting an increase in suspensions for Black and Native American students.

Students and parents need our voices. And they need them now.

This piece was written by Khulia Pringle. She is a parent, educator, education activist, and community organizer working in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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