The little yellow buses line up every morning outside Harrison Education Center in north Minneapolis, discharging dozens of teenagers to a high school no parents choose for their child.
Classrooms are kept locked at all times. Fights and suspensions are common. No one has graduated in a couple of years.
The school is where Minneapolis sends special education students with the worst behavior problems, kids who typically failed everywhere else they went. Administrators say the high school is supposed to be a temporary stop for students to learn self-control before going back to a less restrictive setting.
But few ever leave. And nearly 90 percent of the students are black.
Discrimination in the way students are labeled and disciplined has plagued special education across the country for decades, but a Star Tribune review of state and federal enrollment records shows that the problem is especially acute in Minnesota.
More than 4 percent of all black students in Minnesota are identified as having emotional or behavioral disorders, a subjective, catchall label for thousands of children considered disruptive. That rate is more than three times the national average for black students and higher than any other state in the country, according to the most recent federal data available.
Melody Musgrove, director of the federal Office of Special Education Programs, which monitors state compliance with federal law, said the Star Tribune's findings concern her. "It certainly brings into question the civil rights of those students," Musgrove said.
School officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the issue is most stark, acknowledged that racial bias is tainting special education and vowed to address the long-standing problem.
"We are disappointed in the overrepresentation, and we know we must do something about it," said Bernadeia Johnson, superintendent of Minneapolis public schools. "It's too high. If it is 2 percent, it is too high." Minneapolis' rate is 7 percent; in St. Paul, it is nearly 8 percent.
"St. Paul is not afraid to say that our practices need to change," said Valeria Silva, superintendent of St. Paul schools. "It can't continue happening."
For many students, getting labeled as having an emotional or behavioral disorder (also known as EBD) is devastating. About 40 percent of EBD students drop out of high school, according to federal statistics, a rate twice as high as any other disability category.
Besides being sent to schools such as Harrison, these students are often isolated in separate classrooms that are light on academics but heavy on discipline, including frequent use of suspensions, school officials acknowledge. That has left these students falling behind academically, even when compared with their disabled peers.
Disabled students account for 13 percent of enrollment in Minnesota schools but generate 39 percent of disciplinary actions, according to state records. Similarly, black students account for 13 percent of special-ed enrollment but more than 40 percent of discipline measures.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have been cited twice by state officials for suspending or expelling a disproportionate number of disabled black students since the state started tracking such data in 2009.
The federal Education Department's Office for Civil Rights is investigating Minneapolis' discipline record.
"This is at a crisis level," said Liz Keenan, who oversees special education programs in St. Paul. "We can't keep ignoring the fact that racially driven practices are occurring every day in school systems that are not benefiting our kids of color. … We can't keep saying we didn't know when we have the data right in front of us."
New school, same problem
It's about 10 a.m., and several students at River Bend Education Center in Minneapolis are napping at their desks. One is missing out on a math lesson. Another ignores his science class.
Chris Pagel, the school principal, explains that waking the students would just encourage them to be "noncompliant."
"We're not going to engage in that power struggle," she said.
River Bend is next to Harrison and is its sister school, serving kindergarten through eighth grades just a few blocks from busy Olson Highway.
The district built the schools after state regulators took the rare step in 1997 of ordering Minneapolis to overhaul the way Harrison was operating. State officials cited the school for failing to provide an adequate education and for the overuse of discipline.
At the time, 90 percent of the school's 89 disabled students were black males. That figure is not much different from its makeup today.
Last year, the two schools had 10 white students and 133 black students, state records show. Blacks at Harrison were suspended 435 times last year.
"The conditions at Harrison are as bad as they have ever been," said attorney Amy Goetz, who handled the 1997 complaint against the school. "It is still a dumping ground for African-American kids. It is still part of the school-to-prison pipeline."
Lynne Crockett, who recently retired as a community liaison worker for Minneapolis schools, said she had "tears in my eyes" after touring River Bend two years ago.
"It's like a junior prison," Crockett said. "I don't know what justifies it, and I don't know how parents tolerate it. … How is that acceptable to anyone in this administration?"
Last spring, every student at the two schools who finished a battery of state exams failed the math portion, while just two River Bend students were deemed proficient in reading, records show.
Kim Adams, Harrison's principal, said she cannot point to any benchmarks that show the school is succeeding academically. "I have been working with people at the district office to figure out how to measure what we do."
'Extremely subjective'
Keenan was appalled when she first took a hard look at St. Paul's enrollment figures.
Blacks accounted for 30 percent of students in her district but made up two-thirds of its EBD program.
By contrast, white students, who make up 24 percent of enrollment, accounted for about two-thirds of students identified with autism spectrum disorder.
"I thought, 'Here is the racial dividing line,' " Keenan recalled. "When you look at the criteria for EBD, it is extremely subjective. It is not a blood test. It is not an IQ test. You simply have to show signs of behavior outside of the norms."
In Minnesota, she said, mostly white educators decide who has a disorder and who doesn't.
"We can't fool ourselves," Keenan said. "[Autistic] kids are tearing up the classrooms, too. But it is perceived differently when you have a black student tearing it up than a white student."
University researchers have blamed cultural differences for much of the problem.
Educators "look at a loud, aggressive white child and label them spirited, and the very same behavior with a black child is labeled emotional behavioral disorder," said social worker Teresa Graham, who has worked in Minneapolis and other districts.
Susan Montgomery spent three years trying to convince administrators in Minneapolis that her son, who has autism, did not belong in the district's EBD program. Instead, he was kept there, she said, while his aggression multiplied and he learned virtually nothing.
"My son is in third grade, and he can barely read. He can barely write," Washington said. "I feel like if my son was white, he would have never have been treated like that. It was always seclusion — not inclusion."
After multiple suspensions last year, Minneapolis administrators told Montgomery that the only school that could take her son for the coming year was River Bend.
"I knew that if he went to River Bend, he would never make it out," Montgomery said, noting she was disturbed by its racial makeup.
So she moved to Winona.
Her son now spends most of his day in a regular classroom. He has even gone on field trips without a minder. "There have been a few rocky moments, but this is way better than it was in Minneapolis," she said.
Some parents have gone to court in an attempt to overturn their child's EBD designation since such labels help determine how services are provided to students. But judges typically have sided with school districts, even when a child is diagnosed with autism. In 2012, for instance, an administrative law judge ruled that disability labels don't matter because special-education services are always "tailored to the child's specific needs."
Keenan disagrees. She noted that about 23 percent of white students with autism are at their grade level on standardized tests compared with 4 to 8 percent of black EBD students, even though most EBD students have average IQs or better. The difference, she said, is the focus on discipline in EBD classrooms and the lack of rigorous instruction.
St. Paul administrators have decided to confront the problem, and this fall, the district moved about 270 EBD children out of their self-contained "learning centers" and into mainstream classes. The move affected 19 schools across the district, including seven elementary schools.
That change in approach came after the district slashed suspensions of black students by 25 percent last year, well above its target of 10 percent, said Michelle Walker, CEO of St. Paul schools. Walker said the key was holding teachers and other school workers accountable for "their role in escalating the incident."
'Change is messy'
Wailing echoes through the halls as a distraught girl is marched to the Green Room, the place where all children are now taken when they act up at Frost Lake Elementary School, on St. Paul's East Side.
It was different last year. Disabled kids — mostly black boys — went to the Focus Room in the special-ed wing, explained Amy Eelkema, a teacher and EBD specialist. Everyone else, primarily whites and Asians, visited the principal's office. The different treatment led many black students to conclude they were "bad," Eelkema said.
"We were all trying to do what we thought was best for kids, and it is clear that was not the way to go," Eelkema said.
Many parents of EBD students praise the move, saying it will make it possible for their children to catch up to peers and one day graduate. That goal seemed unobtainable just a few months ago.
"This is like a godsend," said Nosha Edwards, who said her son Martiese previously was treated like an "outcast" at Frost Lake. "Before, I was afraid to answer the phone if it was the school. Martiese was always getting in trouble. Now all I'm hearing is good news."
On the day she visited his class recently, Martiese was frequently in situations that would have caused a meltdown last year. Someone knocked his coat to the ground during recess. He was told to tie his shoes. He had to let another boy deal cards in a math game. Each time, he responded appropriately.
His mother can't get over the difference. His new teacher, Somthavin Chounlamontry, who had seven EBD students join her class this year, agrees. "This is not the same kid at all."
But the approach has polarized the district, leaving many teachers unhappy. They say the switch has compromised the quality of instruction and jeopardized the safety of students and staff members.
"I have never been assaulted more in my entire career," said one St. Paul teacher, who joined colleagues to protest the switch at a union meeting.
Teachers at Hamline Elementary cite problems: A first-grader was slapped in the face by a newly mainstreamed EBD student; a disabled kindergartner took advantage of looser controls and ran away; nearly half of students in one class are EBD, causing frequent disruptions
Craig Anderson, Hamline's principal, acknowledged the transition has been rough. He said it was too ambitious to think that every EBD student could handle a mainstream class all the time, and he agreed it was a mistake to put 11 kids with behavioral problems in a fifth-grade classroom.
But he said his teachers, and most of his students, are making the adjustment. "This is the right thing to do. The kids are proving time and again that they can do it."
The transition dominated a St. Paul school board meeting in early December. Several board members said they had been inundated with calls and e-mails from teachers questioning the new approach.
Board Member John Brodrick, a former teacher, said his impression was that moving so many EBD children into mainstream classes "is not working."
Administrators refused to back down, noting that 80 percent of the children who made the switch have been able to spend most of their time in the classroom. "The adults are the ones who are struggling," not the kids, Frost Lake Principal Stacey Kadrmas said.
St. Paul Superintendent Silva said community outrage would have been high long ago if the victims were not black. "If those [EBD] kids had been white kids, we'd be in one lawsuit after another," she said.
Most school board members supported the move. "Change is messy," chairwoman Jean O'Connell said at the meeting. "Yes, there are people who are upset. There are kids who probably have had tough weeks. But I do believe, based on what I've heard tonight, that this is truly the right thing for us to be doing."
Setting a high bar
The job of rooting out racial discrimination in special ed has largely been left to states, which have taken different approaches to defining the problem.
In Minnesota, no school district has been forced to take action when disabled minority students have been disciplined too much or are too often identified as EBD or having other disabilities.
Federal officials first notified Minnesota about that issue in 2010, concluding that the state's ratio for defining unequal treatment was "too high." At the time, a school district could face consequences only if minorities were disciplined five times as often as whites or dominated a disability category, such as EBD, by a ratio of 5-1. Under Minnesota's rules, a district also has to be cited three years in a row and must have practices that caused the problem.
Minnesota lowered its ratio to 4-1 in 2011. That remains among the highest thresholds in the country, according to a report this year from the Government Accountability Office. At least six other states use a similar ratio.
By contrast, Louisiana regulators require action when racial groups are identified for special education at twice the rate of other students in any given year. They recently demanded changes in 73 school districts, according to the GAO.
In Minnesota's most recent analysis, it found that minorities showed up too frequently in certain disability categories in 28 school districts, while 17 districts have problems with unequal rates of discipline. But the state does not consider those districts noncompliant because it found no evidence of improper practices.
The Minnesota Department of Education defends its handling of the issues, noting that it has provided training to help districts identify practices that lead to unequal representation in special ed. The department also said it has awarded grants to districts to help reduce suspensions and promote other methods to address inappropriate behavior.
At an August meeting, it brought in national speakers to help districts create action plans to address racial inequities.
"We are aware of the many issues we have," said Barb Troolin, who oversees special education at the Minnesota Education Department. "And we are working very hard on some data digs here as well as encouraging districts to look at some of their own data."
Still, some school administrators wonder why the state hasn't been more aggressive, considering the amount of data already pointing to problems. Keenan said she recently encouraged state officials to push districts harder to address racial inequities.
"I said, 'You should have been calling me and saying: How can you let this happen?' "
Diminished dreams
Sarah Washington and her daughter Angelic were happy when they found out she would move to Harrison this fall.
To Washington, the move was tough but necessary, a chance for Angelic to learn to control outbursts that had gotten her suspended repeatedly at two schools. Angelic, 15, was glad she already had friends at Harrison.
But after three months at Harrison, both are desperately seeking a way out.
"The environment is not safe at that school," Angelic said. "The kids aren't listening. They're throwing chairs, hitting teachers. Those people need to be in a jail, not in a school."
She fears her dream of going to college and becoming a surgeon is slipping away.
Unlike some students at Harrison, Angelic doesn't have a history of hitting or physical aggression in her records. She's had a couple incidents of stealing and swearing at teachers, but her most common infraction was tardiness, which accounted for a third of the 51 disciplinary incidents she racked up between 2009 and 2012, according to school records.
Her mother, worried the school is bringing out the worst in her daughter, wants her transferred to Washburn, a traditional high school in south Minneapolis that is racially balanced. But she needs Harrison to approve such a transfer.
"Your environment is too stressful," she told Adams, Harrison's principal, on a recent phone call after Angelic was sent home for getting in a fight with another girl. "She shouldn't have been there in the first place."
Adams said she can't discuss specific students because of privacy issues. But she acknowledged that some students are violent and require the intensive supervision Harrison provides. Recently, one student was arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder. Another was taken into custody after showing up at school in a stolen car, she said.
Michellin Reese said her 18-year-old son needs the extra security Harrison provides.
"I know my son's temper, and I don't want him subjected to all of that peer pressure," said Reese, who believes her son will be able to graduate this spring. "At Harrison, I don't have to worry about the police calling up and saying he was arrested."
Other parents worry the school is a dead end. "You go in that school, and you see more discipline being done than classwork," said Jose Morgan, whose son is in his second year at Harrison. "That is terrible."
Minneapolis Superintendent Johnson remains committed to River Bend and Harrison but said she would like to add classes with more "hands-on" instruction aimed at helping students prepare for a job after school. "I do feel we need to do something different."
Johnson said the district is modifying its discipline policy to reduce suspensions, and she would like to start mainstreaming some EBD kids districtwide next fall. "From what I have seen, we are focused … on the emotional behavior disorder and not equally on the academics as strongly as we need to," she said. "We absolutely know that is a problem."
Jeffrey Meitrodt • 612-673-4132