A federal push to ease up on school suspensions and expulsions hasn’t caught the St. Paul schools off guard.

Over the past two years, suspensions have declined in the state’s second-largest school district precisely because of the sorts of actions now suggested by the federal government, district spokeswoman Toya Stewart Downey said.

St. Paul’s work, in fact, appears to be just what the Obama administration ordered with its new guidelines, issued Jan. 8, urging districts to scrap potentially discriminatory practices and employ strategies that include counseling for students and cultural-awareness training for school employees.

“The widespread use of suspensions and expulsions has tremendous costs,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in a letter to school officials. “Students who are suspended or expelled from school may be unsupervised during daytime hours and cannot benefit from great teaching, positive peer interactions and adult mentorship.”

Similar words have been echoed in St. Paul, where administrators — sometimes to the frustration of teachers — implore schools to do all they can to keep their students in class, saying repeatedly: You can’t learn if you’re not in school.

In 2012-13, the district eliminated “continual willful disobedience” from a list of suspendable violations and offered financial incentives to principals to trim their suspension numbers. In addition, the school board last summer approved the latest in a series of contracts with a consulting firm that hosts “courageous conversations” encouraging staff members to examine any racial biases they may bring to their work. The contracts have totaled about $1.2 million to date.

Suspensions dropped by 28 percent overall in 2012-13, but black students still were nearly 10 times as likely to be suspended as Asian students, the ethnic group with the lowest percentage of students disciplined, the district’s data shows. Black students were 10.3 times more likely to be suspended during the previous year.

In 2013-14, St. Paul is giving students who misbehave on buses a chance to erase suspensions by attending safety classes — with their parents. The district also is making plans to provide coaching to schools that have disproportionate suspensions of black students.

A community task force is being formed, too, to study and recommend alternatives to suspensions.

“We know that this is a broader discussion that goes beyond schools and students,” Stewart Downey said.

Jeffrey Martin, president of the NAACP’s St. Paul chapter, said that he knew overall suspension numbers declined. But he said the fact that a majority of students disciplined were students of color, and that black kids topped the list among those students, made the issue “still a high concern for us.” The NAACP is using its connections with the faith community to urge families to call the chapter about any student-teacher issues before suspensions are meted out, he said.

Suspensions down

In Minneapolis, a smaller share of students have been suspended than six years ago, but students of color still routinely top white students in suspension rates. Recently, the district revised its disciplinary policy to emphasize reinforcing behavioral standards and using restorative justice techniques over disciplinary measures.

Black students were six times more likely to be suspended in 2012-13 than white students. The disparity for Indian students was nearly as high. No students have been expelled in recent years, but the district uses administrative transfers to shift them among schools.

Parent activist Ralph Crowder attributes the racially distinctive pattern of suspensions to the dismal academic performance of many black students, whom he said seek status by disruption as they fall behind academically. Narrowing the academic gap would reduce disciplinary disparities, he said. The district also needs to more closely and in a more colorblind way adhere to its written policies, Crowder said. He cited a lack of discipline in an incident last year in which students hung a black doll by a noose at Washburn High School.

School board member Richard Mammen said that the federal emphasis on keeping students in school reinforces the revamped Minneapolis policy. He said that by dealing with disruptive students in school, and increasing the availability of mental health services, schools are reducing suspensions and increasing attendance.

Minneapolis is awaiting the results of a compliance review initiated by the federal Office of Civil Rights in May 2012 on whether the district discriminates against black students by disciplining them more frequently and more harshly than similar white students.