While Katherine Kersten’s divisive diatribes in the Star Tribune have become all but predictable, the hateful premise in her most recent commentary reaches a new low.
In “Undisciplined” (March 18), Kersten stated that efforts by Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights to identify and work with school districts with disproportionally high rates of suspensions and expulsions of students of color will almost certainly lead to “mischief and mayhem” in our schools. She painted a grim picture of anarchy and lawlessness in our classrooms, and bolstered her outrageous claims with straw-man arguments, unsourced blog posts and selectively cited statistics from reports that reinforce the fear she incites.
Her arguments were misleading, reckless and — worst of all — flat-out racist.
In previous articles, Kersten has slammed efforts to make schools and classrooms safer for transgender students. She has claimed that the deep racial-equity work some school districts are doing to break down structural barriers that prevent kids of color from having access to the same opportunities as their white peers is nothing more than coded “indoctrination and intimidation.” She has opposed efforts to integrate schools and complained that Minnesota’s 2014 antibullying law went too far in trying to protect LGBT students from bullying and harassment.
In her latest piece, she once again has single mothers and black boys in her sights.
Enough is enough.
No doubt, every student and teacher deserves safe and orderly classrooms. But Kersten is not an expert on our schools, our teachers or our students. No reader of this newspaper should accept the illusion that she is. Her unsubstantiated arguments, once and for all, must be called for what they are: falsehoods.
For instance, Kersten’s complaints that Minnesota parents and community members cannot access discipline data are simply untrue. A simple search of the Minnesota Department of Education’s Data Center would easily have confirmed that the department reports discipline data every year and summarizes them in a report to the Legislature. Both the raw data and the report are public information that numerous organizations — including civil-rights groups and the Solutions Not Suspensions coalition — have used to call for exactly the kind of attention to this issue that the Department of Human Rights has now undertaken.
Had Kersten done any legitimate research, beyond the reach of her favorite right-wing sources, a close look at the data would have made it abundantly clear that a number of Minnesota schools are suspending kids of color at far higher rates than their demographic proportion. For example:
• American Indian students are 10 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than are their white peers.
• African-American students are eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled than are their white peers.
• Students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended or expelled as are peers without a disability.
These figures, in and of themselves, should make us want to pause and ask why. Instead, Kersten shifts to scare tactics about crime in our communities, ignoring the fact that the MinnPost article she references shows that the Department of Human Rights effort is focused on suspensions that result from subjective infractions, such as talking loudly or disruptive behavior for which students of color are treated more harshly than their white peers.
Contrary to Kersten’s claims, no one wants to take away a principal’s ability to suspend or expel a student for violent offenses or criminal activity, which we all agree will never be acceptable. The Department of Human Rights is not calling for a moratorium on suspensions or expulsions. Instead, after removing violent offenses and criminal activity from the data set, it is calling for school officials to seriously examine solutions to suspension data that year after year demonstrate significant and troubling disparities over time.
The data also show that students with disabilities make up about 50 percent of all our suspensions, a disturbing reality that is not even mentioned in Kersten’s column.
In Kersten’s world, all we really need to do to eliminate unruly behavior in children is to make sure they all come from a two-parent household. But the real world isn’t that simple. As we begin to really dig into and understand the root causes behind these large disparities, then engage in the hard, uncomfortable work of dismantling the systems and behaviors that perpetuate them, it is crucial that we embrace complexity and reject the temptation to settle on simple solutions.
Minnesota needs an educated, skilled population to ensure shared social and economic success. An education system that works for all students must be our highest priority, and the truth is that currently, school discipline practices are hindering too many of our children’s chances at academic and social success.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can say: “Enough.” We can set high expectations for acceptable behavior in our classrooms. We can hold all students accountable for meeting them. We can defend our teachers’ ability to maintain orderly classrooms where all children can learn. And we can reject the fearmongering and racial resentments that Kersten and the Star Tribune inflame when they give divisive and hateful words column inches and oxygen.
This newspaper’s readers deserve better. More important, our children and teachers deserve better — much better.
Brenda Cassellius is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education.