The Minnesota Department of Human Rights reached three-year agreements with nine school districts and charter schools Thursday to put in place a system that reduces disparities in school discipline for students of color and those with disabilities.
The nine districts and charter schools that have signed on include St. Paul Public Schools, Hopkins, Columbia Heights, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan and Bemidji.
The state’s Human Rights Department said it has reached agreement with 20 school districts on the plan.
Kevin Lindsey, Human Rights commissioner, commended school leaders for their willingness to eliminate disparities in discipline for nonviolent behaviors for disabled students and students of color.
He said this effort will ultimately shrink the state’s achievement gap between students of color and their white peers and will “help build a stronger Minnesota that is ready to embrace the dramatic demographic changes in our near future as our population ages and becomes more diverse.”
Nekima Levy-Pounds, a civil rights attorney and former law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, said she is heartened by the gesture but said policies and practices that crack down on the school-to-prison pipeline are long overdue. She said the agreements will be effective only if there is sustained accountability and regular monitoring from the Human Rights Department and the public.
“Racial disparities in school suspension and discipline rates have had a significant impact on children of color and children with disabilities in the state of Minnesota,” said Levy-Pounds, who has long advocated for restorative justice. “These high suspension and expulsion rates contribute to high dropout rates and impact children’s ability to succeed in school.”
According to the agreements, nonviolent offenses that would not warrant suspensions or expulsions include eye rolling, swearing and other minor disruptive behaviors. Incidents like fighting, possession of weapons or illegal drugs are seen as a safety concern and are not subject to the agreements.
The agreements grant school officials autonomy to create a plan that’s geared to their respective schools and focuses on things like increasing student and school community engagement and teaching cultural competency.
St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said in a statement Thursday that the state’s second-largest school system will continue with its effort to reduce suspensions and expulsions for students of color, including American Indian students and those with disabilities and will “collaborate with others to explore solutions for these complex and statewide issues.”
A statewide analysis released in March by the department showed stark differences in school discipline between students of color and disabled kids and their white peers. Students of color make up only 31 percent of the student population but accounted for 66 percent of all school suspensions and expulsions in the 2015-16 school year. Specifically, American Indian students were 10 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers, and black students were eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students — higher than the national average.
Meanwhile, students with disabilities received 43 percent of all suspensions and expulsions, even though they make up only 14 percent of the student population.
Last fall, the Human Rights Department met with representatives of 43 Minnesota school districts and charter schools to discuss the data. It asked schools to come up with plans to fix the disparities, which could be a violation of the state Human Rights Act.
If a school and the department can’t come to an agreement, the department could file administrative charges, which would require the school to produce more information to see if there’s evidence of discrimination.
If there is, a settlement could be negotiated or the case could be forwarded to the state Attorney General’s Office — a rare move.