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Discipline disparities widespread in Minnesota schools

Forum News Service

An analysis by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights has found that students of color are disproportionately disciplined in most of the state's public schools.

The disparities are a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act because they "deny students of color and students with disabilities educational access and negatively impact academic achievement," the department said in a news release Friday.

The Human Rights Department said it is working with 43 school districts and charter schools to develop corrective action plans. Those districts and schools won't be identified until an agreement between each and the department is reached. If that doesn't happen and a charge is initiated and investigated, the identity would be revealed upon closure of that investigation, said Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey.

A News Tribune analysis of Duluth school district discipline data in 2016 found that black students and students with disabilities were disproportionately suspended over a five-year period. The district did not respond Friday to a question of whether it was among the 43 working with the Human Rights Department.

The department found that statewide, students of color make up 31 percent of the student population, but received 66 percent of suspensions and expulsions over a five-year period. While 14 percent of students have disabilities, they received 43 percent of such discipline.

The department excluded suspensions for weapons, drugs and physical altercations.

"If we are going to impose some type of penalty, or in this case withhold a day in the classroom, we want to make sure that's not being impacted by implicit or explicit bias," Lindsey said.

The department is working with districts and schools to ensure equal treatment of all students, he said.

The department found:

• Native American students were 10 times more likely and black students eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.

• Students with disabilities were twice more likely to be suspended or expelled than students without a disability.

• Fifty-five percent of all suspensions in the state — excluding fighting, illegal drugs or weapon possession — were the result of a subjective judgment made by school officials.

If an agreement can't be reached with any of the 43 school districts and charter schools on a corrective action plan, the department might file administrative charges, it said. That would prompt the district or charter school to provide more information for investigation. Once finalized, the department could issue a "probable cause determination," meaning it has found enough evidence to believe there has been discrimination.

Each of the 43 districts and schools has some sort of strategy for addressing classroom behavior issues, Lindsey said, whether it's restorative justice practices, professional staff development geared toward working with students of color, or positive behavior interventions. Some aren't using them with fidelity or have much oversight, he said, noting, "We are trying to get more consistency."

Corrective action could involve more training or a change in policy, with the idea that it will help drive down disparities.

Between 2008 and 2014, the years the News Tribune analyzed such data, special education students in Duluth schools made up about 15 percent of enrollment, but those students accounted for 46 percent of suspensions. Black males represented 5 percent of enrollment but accounted for 20 percent of suspensions during that time. All black students were less than 10 percent of enrollment, but accounted for 31 percent of days lost to suspension. That group persistently lags far behind white students in academic achievement.