From Discipline to Engagement: Keeping Students in the Classroom

by Angela Vang

There has been a lot of talk about school discipline this year. Suspensions have come under greater scrutiny in many school districts, and rightly so. By pushing students out of school, they deny students the opportunity to engage, learn and grow. We know this.

One rebuttal that I hear again and again is something along the lines of, “When I was in school, students respected teachers under all circumstances because they’re authority figures. If you didn’t, you were punished, no questions asked.” It usually comes from someone who has not been a student in the public school system for 20+ years. Unfortunately, this downplays the role of empathy in the classroom, and the importance of strong relationships built on mutual respect.

Summarized, the argument goes like this: punishment leads to “appropriate” behavior which leads to classroom obedience. The issue is that obedience should not be the goal of education. It worries me that people in our community believe punitive measures are necessary to uphold this respect for teachers.

Do punitive approaches actually work? The evidence consistently points towards no. Research has shown that reliance on this kind of discipline has a severe impact on learning time, especially for our students who are already the most vulnerable. And as for the part of the argument that says “we have to remove kids for the sake of their peers”? These tactics even harm the education of students who do not misbehave. It’s clear that the old “that’s how it’s always been” argument  is not going to suffice anymore. Our students deserve better.

This argument needs to be flipped. Trust is something that often has to be built. If students feel a lack of respect from teachers, they will disconnect and behavior will spiral. If there is empathy between educators and students, the classroom can be an environment that thrives.

As Aretha Franklin so gracefully put it, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.”

A study published by Stanford University found that teachers encouraged to adopt an empathic rather than punitive mindset about discipline—to value students’ perspectives and sustain positive relationships while encouraging better behavior—had the impact of cutting suspensions in half.

The findings showed that teachers that were given an opportunity to express their empathic values—to understand students’ perspectives and to sustain positive relationships with students when they misbehave—improved student-teacher relationships and discipline outcomes.

I’ve had a number of teachers tell me on the first day of class, “I don’t care if you like me, I’m here to teach you and if you don’t want to learn, you can leave.” This statement always confused me. Of course I want to learn. I also want to like my teacher. How am I supposed to enjoy learning if you’ve already discouraged the idea of developing an understanding relationship with one another?

For many students, a basic recognition of their humanity is enough to sustain a trusting relationship that can propel them to see education in a more positive light. These actions can be as small as refraining from publicly criticizing their work/behavior, connecting with them individually, learning how to correctly pronounce a student’s name or similarly, not confusing them with other students of the same race (something that happened to me frequently in high school). Small acts of affirmation go a long way to encourage participation, engagement and work ethic.

On the flip side, Stanford researchers found that many teachers view respect in terms of cooperation and compliance. Why can’t we have both?

The understanding of each other’s perspectives is critical. What’s important is that the respect and empathy is there. By no means is this a new concept but perhaps we can start seeing empathy as a key to academic success.


Born and raised on the East Side of St. Paul, Angela Vang has been a part of the Saint Paul Public Schools community her whole life. Her interest in education equity started in early high school when she served as a teaching fellow with Breakthrough Twin Cities. Since then, she has completed fellowships with organizations such as Youthprise, Pollen Midwest, MinnCAN and was elected co-chair of Minnesota Youth Council’s Education Committee during the 2015-2016 session. Angela hopes to aid in efforts to close the opportunity gap, build bridges, and create culturally competent working/learning spaces. Along with education reform, she is passionate about reproductive justice, eliminating health stigmas within immigrant communities, and the intersections of policy as it relates to racial equity. She is a proud 2016 graduate of St. Paul Central High School and is currently attending The University of Minnesota, intending to major in journalism and political science.


A call to prioritize school climate

This summer, the Minnesota Department of Education will make major decisions about how we measure the success of our schools. Minnesota has the chance to build a better accountability system that can help schools become stronger and more equitable. This new system can include a variety of measures, and school climate should be one. To build the schools our students deserve, we must measure student learning and growth while also assessing the conditions for learning. The Solutions Not Suspensions coalition urges MDE to make conversations about school climate a real priority.

In late 2015, the federal government passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new law that replaces No Child Left Behind. The law gives states the flexibility to craft new, locally tailored school accountability systems that will likely be in place for the next decade. It’s critical that we take the time to get it right. MDE must bring a diverse group of stakeholders to the table, engage them meaningfully and explore deeply what they really envision for Minnesota schools.

Today, Minnesota has one of the nation’s largest academic achievement gaps. This academic gap is accompanied by deep and pervasive racial disparities in school discipline, which disproportionately takes students of color and students with disabilities out of the classroom and away from important learning time. School climate—meaning the norms, values and structures that define daily life in a school—is a major factor in student success. It often drives student attendance, behavior and overall participation in the learning environment, with policies like zero tolerance having a particularly negative impact.

If we want to close our academic achievement gaps, we must improve school climates statewide. How our schools work to engage and include students must not go unmeasured in the state’s accountability model. Addressing this critical aspect of our schools will improve student learning and graduation rates across the board.

We are calling on MDE to convene a diverse working group specifically focused on school climate to discuss what we can and should measure. From student surveys to discipline data, there are concrete indicators we can use to understand what’s happening within schools and across districts. Improving school climate is an evidence-based approach to improving school quality. It is also widely recognized by many federal and state agencies as both an effective health promotion and risk reduction strategy.

As MDE moves forward, it is important that a diverse group of stakeholders participate in this process. Educators, parents, students, advocates and community members should have a say in how these factors feed into our accountability system.

To that end, we call on MDE to:

  1. Create an ESSA implementation working group specifically focused on school climate;
  2. Invite diverse stakeholders to participate in the working group, including members focused on school discipline;
  3. Allow for unfettered discussion. MDE’s guidance and expertise are critical, but participants must have a real say in forming the new system, not just react to already-developed proposals; and
  4. Engage the broader community outside of the working group. Find a variety of times and places to get out and talk to Minnesota families with a stake in this work and meaningfully integrate their feedback.

Please join us in asking for a school climate working group by emailing We look forward to an inclusive ESSA planning process that gives educators and community members the information they need to achieve equity and excellence in our schools.

Let’s get the school discipline working group just right

I appreciated the recent Star Tribune editorial endorsing state legislators’ efforts to establish a working group to recommend comprehensive policies to improve school discipline.

As a member of the St. Paul Special Education Advisory Council (SEAC) and a parent of children with special needs, I endorse this working group, too, but with one important caveat: it matters who is in it. In particular, if we want this group to make meaningful changes to close school discipline disparities, it is critical that those most impacted by these disparities—namely, communities of color and special education students—have seats at the table.

While the editorial rightly praised the Legislature for working to create a school discipline working group, it failed to mention that there are some key differences in the two chambers’ bills. Both the House and Senate proposals spell out that many stakeholders who work in our school system and have the power to implement changes must be invited to the group, including school administrators, principals, teachers and counselors.

But the House version goes even further than the Senate bill, clarifying that several community groups—the St. Paul SEAC, the African American Leadership Forum, American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and others—are also essential in crafting and implementing policy recommendations.

…it is critical that those most impacted by these disparities—namely, communities of color and special education students—have seats at the table.

This is an important difference. It is important because special education, American Indian and black students face the worst school discipline disparities in the state. If they do not have representation in this working group, I worry that the group’s recommendations might not go far enough to address implicit bias, create empowering school climates and close discipline disparities. It is possible that without the perspective of these communities, the working group’s recommendations might actually make things worse for many students.

We cannot afford to let this happen. A Minnesota Department of Education report found that in 2007-08, black students were 5.9 times more likely to be suspended than white students, and American Indian students were 6.2 times more likely to be expelled than white students. In 2014-15, special education students accounted for 13 percent of Minnesota’s public school enrollment, yet nearly half of all disciplinary actions.

These disparities alone should be cause for concern. But what should add urgency to our state’s efforts to close them is new research published showing that school discipline disparities contribute to achievement gaps. In fact, researchers from the University of Kentucky and Indiana University found that school suspensions account for roughly one-fifth of the white-black achievement gap.

If we want to close our state’s nation-trailing achievement gaps, we have to guarantee that our school discipline policies and practices do not—whether intentionally or inadvertently—disproportionately push certain students out of learning opportunities. There is no better way to ensure this than to invite those most impacted by current policies and practices to the conversation, to share their solutions, experiences and concerns.

If we want to close our state’s nation-trailing achievement gaps, we have to guarantee that our school discipline policies and practices do not—whether intentionally or inadvertently—disproportionately push certain students out of learning opportunities.

For example, our Legislature recently considered a bill to automatically expel any student who commits “assault” against a teacher. At the bill’s hearing, parents of children with disabilities shared their concerns that the proposed definition of “assault” would lead—likely unintentionally—to the automatic expulsion of students with special needs who, during an episode, might inadvertently harm a teacher. Students of color also expressed concerns that they are more likely to be considered violent or a threat simply because of their skin color, concerns that multiple research studies back up.

These criticisms of the proposed bill were warranted and important—and would not have been raised had diverse voices not been present. This is exactly why the school discipline working group needs to include many perspectives. Without diverse voices, this group might have the best intentions, and yet still offer policy recommendations that could do more harm than good.

I thank our policymakers for correctly acknowledging that we need time to have a thorough review of current school discipline policies. I hope that in the remaining weeks of the 2016 state legislative session, they work to intentionally include the voices and perspectives of those who will be most impacted by the working group’s outcomes.

Lynn Shellenberger is a member of the Saint Paul Public Schools Special Education Advisory Council. She is a mother of three children, all of whom have or had individualized education plans in SPPS.

MN Youth: Help SNS Design a Logo!


Are you a Minnesota student with a passion for art and design? Do you want to use your talent to get more involved in school and community issues? If so, this is your chance!

Who We Are: Solutions Not Suspensions is a coalition of students, educators, parents and advocates dedicated to ending discipline disparities, advancing restorative justice and keeping students IN school. We hold events in the community, work with schools to develop better approaches to school discipline and advocate for stronger state policy.

Call for Logos: We are looking for a logo to capture the spirit of our work. The logo should include the name Solutions Not Suspensions along with an image (together or side by side). Here are some thoughts on inspiration and elements you could include:

  • Has a hopeful feeling and portrays young people positively
  • Conveys a sense of urgency
  • Conveys value of diversity and community
  • Could include something Minnesota-inspired, such as an outline of the state or the North star
  • Could include imagery related to schools, such as a building, classroom or students/teachers

Contest Rules: We are accepting logo submissions from young Minnesotans across the state, and will select the winning logo in March. The details:

  • DEADLINE: Logos must be received by 12pm on Monday, February 29
  • ELIGIBILITY: We will accept submissions from Minnesotans age 25 or under
    • All submissions must be electronic (high resolution pdf, jpeg, png, eps, etc). Please email your logo to Reggie Evans:
    • Each submission should include:
      • Name & Age (may submit list of names if created collaboratively)
      • Email address
      • Name of your school (if applicable)
      • A paragraph summarizing why this issue matters to you and the meaning behind your logo design (Please note: the text you submit may be used anonymously by the coalition for promotional purposes)
    • Logo submissions may be hand illustrated or created on a computer, but must be original work with no copyrighted or otherwise protected material
    • By submitting a logo, you grant the coalition ownership rights to the logo, and all organizations affiliated with the coalition will have the right to use the logo

Selection & Prize: The coalition will review all submissions and select a winning logo based on creativity and overall design. Winner will receive one $50 gift card and recognition from the coalition. The winning logo will be used both online and in print!