Parents in Rochester Public Schools had been complaining about bullying and fights breaking out in the district’s schools, which occasionally led to police being called. For example, a “big fight” at John Adams Middle School in November caused the school to go into lockdown for 30 minutes, according to a local report.
“We have videos of all of this that’s floating around Snapchat. We took our children’s phones away the other day and looked at them. Girls were being dragged over the back of the buses by their necks, being punched in the face. These are 11, 12 and 13-year-old children,” a parent told a local outlet.
The superintendent, Kent Pekel, then announced that school leaders were working on a plan to combat the issue. “We have been working… quite intensively and school district staff is working to put in place a strategy that is intended to both immediately and over time respond to these issues,” he said.
The plan, released in June, detailed that the district planned to utilize “restorative practices,” “equity specialists,” and “empathetic discipline” to deal with some disruptive behavior. Empathetic discipline means using “techniques that strengthen staff willingness and ability to understand students’ lives and situations before taking disciplinary action.”
Suspensions and expulsions are still on the table as a last resort and the plan will continue to be refined over the summer until it is launched in the fall, according to the superintendent.
At four schools in the district – Century Dakota, John Marshall, Kellogg, and Mayo High school – the school plans to implement restorative-type practices. “Equity specialists” are slated to be used at Century and John Marshall. The plan also stipulated that at least three schools in the district, Century High, John Marshall and Kellogg Middle school were looking for alternatives to out-of-school suspension.
“That doesn’t mean don’t use suspension. It means the kid is in school in some type of an out-of-class program. And we have a couple that are really promising that are focused on redirecting behavior,” the superintendent told Fox News Digital.
“And we need to make sure the consequences that we are imposing or the responses that we’re imposing matter to those kids. If you suspend the kid and… [he or she thinks] ‘I get to go be home for three days,’ that’s not a meaningful response. And so those are some of the things that we’re going to be that we’re working on this summer and that we’ll be implementing over the year ahead.”
Pekel transitioned from his research career into the superintendent role in July 2021. In his research at the Search Institute, Pekel pointed out how “young people of color are more likely to suffer from harsh school discipline policies.” He added in “Defining and Measuring Social Capital for Young People,” published in 2020, that “these barriers are likely to contribute to disparities in postsecondary outcomes and may place young people on poor life trajectories – contributing to income inequality and poor health outcomes later in life.”
Pekel said he was using over 10 years of research to generate better academic outcomes for his students.
“Now I’m a little more directly working here on the same issues, but in a school district of about 18,000 kids,” Pekel said.
Principally, Pekel said his concern was with eliminating the blocks to ensure his students’ academic success.
“Rochester is an interesting district with the home of the Mayo Clinic, so arguably the best hospital in the world. And so lots of world-class talent, but also a wonderful, changing and increasingly diverse community here in southern Minnesota. And so it was a unique opportunity to really marry the efforts to advance both academic excellence and… equity so that all kids are experiencing and achieving at those levels.”
Pekel also plans to make sure Rochester schools generate a sense of belonging with students. “Belonging” and “behavior” are the “two b’s” guiding the district’s approach. “Belonging meaning, taking steps to be sure that every kid is known, feels accepted, feels affirmed, it has a connection, but then also having very clear standards for behavior.”
“I would say to our parents and other caregivers that we believe that a sense of belonging and that commitment to good behavior are foundational to all the other academic improvements that we’re committed to make,” Pekel said. “And so we are going to we’re going to build on the progress we made this year, and we intend to do it next year. And we’re going to stop doing what doesn’t work and continually try and find new solutions to do what does.”