A coalition of religious leaders joined parents and teachers for a press conference at the Capitol on March 6, 2014, to announce plans to end the crisis caused by mass suspensions and expulsions in our public schools.

Rev. Paul Slack is the pastor at New Creation Church in Minneapolis and the President of ISAIAH, a coalition of over 100 congregations from various faith traditions working in the Twin Cities, St. Cloud and greater Minnesota. He outlined the school-to-prison pipeline, in which children of color are systemically more likely to be disciplined, suspended or expelled than their white counterparts, and they are less likely to graduate.

MassIncarcPress 4 6 14Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds from the St. Thomas University Law School pointed out that Minnesota has some of the worst disparate outcomes in school suspensions in the nation. Referencing Minnesota Department of Education statistics, she noted that during the 2011-2012 school year, 49,609 students across the state were suspended, expelled, or excluded. Even though students of color made up only 30% of the overall school population; they accounted for 60% of the total disciplinary actions.

“These statistics should break our hearts, and compel us all – especially the faith community – to act in a transformative way,” she added.

“In my past teaching experiences, I’ve witnessed children in handcuffs; children from grades K-5 suspended; internal discussions of ‘kick-out season’ among teachers and administrators, and children antagonized and racially targeted,” said Lyndel Owens, former teacher for the Minneapolis School District. “We need new solutions that will take us away from punitive disciplines to policies that promote the inclusion and nurturing of all God’s children.”

“We need to speak life into this situation and into our children. We can no longer tolerate the on-going study of the problem without any action and real investment by the state and school districts,” declared Rev. Slack. “We can no longer stand by and watch our kids get pushed out of school and into a pipeline to prison. It’s time we talk about black children as children, not as criminals we should fear.”

Towanna Williams, a member of New Creation Church, pointed out the need to repair the current disciplinary system, “I thought I had done all my fights for my child in the medical field to get my son diagnosed with his medical condition, but I find my fight continues in the school districts,” she explained. “He’s been expelled multiple times for behavior consistent with his disability. It’s time for us to make a change.

Rev. Slack laid out the faith communities’ plans for a statewide, faith-based initiative focused on engaging local & state officials, parents and educators to end the crisis of mass suspensions and to divert the pipeline to prison to a pipeline to opportunity.

Key points in the plan include:

  • Raising awareness and underscoring this as a moral issue facing Minnesota.
  • Encouraging schools and districts to pass a moratorium on school suspensions.
  • Removing police from school discipline. The relationship between the criminal justice and the education systems often creates the conditions for the school-to-prison pipeline.
  • Urging schools and districts to follow the U.S. federal guidelines on school climate and discipline.

Others have implemented solutions that that would be effective to end this crisis for students of color in Minnesota. Broward Country, Florida, the nation’s 7th largest school district, successfully removed the criminal justice system from their school discipline practices. Here in Minnesota, 2 schools in the Osseo school district have passed moratoriums on school suspensions that begin on May 1 and ISAIAH leaders are in conversations with 2 other school districts to encourage them to follow suit.