A member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is questioning the legality of a new discipline policy aimed at reducing suspensions for students of color in Minneapolis public schools.
The policy is “legally and constitutionally suspect,” Peter Kirsanow, an attorney and one of eight federal civil rights commissioners, wrote to Minneapolis public school officials.
Kirsanow’s letter came weeks after Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson announced she will review all suspensions of students of color after the child is punished. The new rule is in addition to more than a dozen changes Minneapolis school leaders agreed to after a federal inquiry concluded that black students were suspended at significantly higher rates than white students.
Kirsanow said he is concerned that the “new program will nonetheless result in racial quotas for disciplinary actions, with negative consequences for the learning experience of students.”
District officials say they have no intention of stopping their suspension reviews, a policy they believe will help school leaders better understand why students are suspended and see if more school resources are needed.
Stan Alleyne, the district’s spokesman, said Kirsanow “misrepresents the information, our plans and our intentions.”
Johnson and other Minneapolis school officials have said that by keeping students of color in the classroom, they hope to dramatically reduce the district’s high achievement gap between white and minority children.
Attorneys for Minneapolis schools say the superintendent’s review “does not violate any part of the United States Constitution or federal statute; rather compliance with such laws requires it.”
“The school district will examine where disproportionality exists, and in reviewing the data, if it is discovered that discipline of a particular student is harsher than that of a similarly situated student of another race, it will be remedied,” said Amy Moore, a school district attorney.
Kirsanow strongly objected to the superintendent laying out specific goals for reducing the discipline disparity.
By the end of this school year, she wants to see the gap cut by 25 percent. By 2018, she wants it completely eliminated.
Kirsanow refers to these reductions as quotas because “it has nothing to do with whether any particular individual deserved to be punished for his misbehavior.”
Alleyne said the numbers are simply goals, not quotas.
“He is making a case for something that is not even part of our suspension review,” Alleyne said.
Kirsanow sent the letter on official letterhead from the Commission on Civil Rights but said he was writing as one member of the commission and not on behalf of the agency.
Kirsanow, a Republican, is known as a vocal leader on many divisive racial and social issues. He has been a strong opponent of President Obama’s immigration overhaul, saying the flood of new workers would hurt blacks on the lower end of the wage scale. Lately, he has written similar letters to groups on issues ranging from abortion to same-sex marriage.
The district intends to contact the commission regarding Kirsanow’s concerns.
Alleyne said the district expects the full commission “would have a different interpretation of our suspension review.”
The letter comes less than a week after a final settlement between the school district and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which concluded that black students were far more likely to be suspended than white students. The investigation found students engaging in similar misconduct did not always receive the same discipline.
Federal education officials identified nine specific examples where a black student was suspended for a behavior that did not result in a suspension for a white child.
In one instance, a second-grade white student was not suspended after throwing a rock at a teacher and hitting another student in the head. But a black second-grader who poked a student with a pencil was sent home.