Missed opportunity: Meaningful change to bolster classroom safety

The Minnesota legislature mandated many new K-12 education policies this past legislative session but missed the opportunity to enact meaningful changes to better protect teachers and students. Instead, there is concern that classrooms will become more chaotic with the state’s new discipline policy that bans suspensions for our youngest students.

Thirty-year veteran teacher Deborah York and co-chair of the Safe Schools Movement Team believes the changes are at odds with existing law aimed at ensuring safe and supportive schools.

“Unless teachers retain the authority to remove students who harass, bully and threaten the well-being of classmates and teachers — authority provided under the safe schools statutes signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2016 — our students will be at risk of emotional and physical harm with this new discipline policy,” York opines in the Star Tribune.

While students can still be removed from the classroom and dismissed from school for less than one school day (except students receiving special education services), narrowing school district authority to dismiss students for disciplinary reasons could have “significant unintended consequences on individual students, school climate, safety and resources,” according to the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals.

The goal should always be to keep students in the classroom so they can have equal opportunities to learn, but “[s]adly, the children this new law is designed to help…may end up falling further behind,” York writes. She recalls her personal experience with ongoing violence in her classroom “at the hands of a young student who was not given adequate support, despite my desperate attempts to help the child,” and who ended up “falling through the [system’s] cracks.”

York and her Safe Schools Movement Team have been advocating for student and teacher safety for years — meeting with school district leaders, reaching out to legislators, the teachers’ union, and the Minnesota Department of Education, to name a few — to try and strengthen current legislation and ensure all school staff knows the existing safe schools laws. “We have been speaking out for teachers who can’t,” York shared with American Experiment. “More and more teachers and paraprofessional school staff across the state not only fear reprisal for sharing safety alarms, but many have been silenced and threatened with termination for reporting serious conduct violations.”

“Per existing state laws, educators with knowledge of students with a history of previous violence must be backed with immediate responses to aggressive situations [that] put teachers and students at risk,” urges York in the Star Tribune.

A national February survey by the Education Advisory Board revealed troubling trends in student behavior, with teachers reporting that “they are increasingly the target of disruptive student behavior and that classroom incidents involving physical violence have more than doubled” since the onset of COVID-19.

With pressure on school districts to adhere to restorative justice discipline policies, educators, parents, and students have shared the predictable albeit unintended consequences of these policies.

Hear more on the topic from Deborah York, other retired educators, a parent advocate and safe school advocates in the panel discussion below.