Dozens of Minnesota school districts, under pressure from parents and state officials, have adopted or are pursuing new measures to reduce suspensions and expulsions of students of color and those with disabilities.

The St. Paul School District has directed police who work in its buildings to steer clear of investigating or recommending discipline for students for missteps that do not involve a crime. Duluth, Eden Prairie, Edina and Osseo school districts have struck similar agreements with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

The districts are among 43 traditional public school and charter school systems that had been warned by state human rights officials that they faced investigations into possible discrimination if they did not work to reduce the racial disparities in student discipline.

Students of color accounted for 66 percent of all suspensions and expulsions in 2015-16 even though they represent only 31 percent of the state's student population, according to the Human Rights Department's analysis of discipline data. Black students in the state were eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers, and American Indian students were 10 times more likely — disparities worse than those reported nationally.

Parents have long complained that students of color are more likely to be disciplined than white students for the same behavior. But problems do flare up. St. Paul's move from two-year junior highs to three-year middle schools — combined with the mainstreaming of students with emotional and behavioral disorders — triggered a jump in unruly behavior that sent suspension rates soaring and many families fleeing. Advocates welcome the commitment to ease disparities.

"The numbers don't lie," said Khulia Pringle, a community organizer and family advocate who last year spoke out on behalf of a black student in St. Paul who had been suspended six times for nonviolent behavior for two or more days and dismissed from school for parts of nearly 25 others.

She cautioned, however, that while district strategies can look good on paper, they will not work unless the people who are affected are part of the solution.

Last fall, the Human Rights Department began meeting with district and charter school leaders to discuss possible remedies. It has since published 38 settlement agreements identifying the districts and schools involved, while shining a light on behavioral strategies to be tracked on a semiannual basis.

St. Paul and Osseo have embraced a preventive approach to behavioral concerns touted by the Human Rights Department: Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). As part of it, schools deliver lessons and reminders about what is expected of students and reward them for their good work — creating a positive school culture that comes complete with upbeat mottos, for example, the Oriole Way at Osseo Middle School and Phalen Pride at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School in St. Paul.

St. Paul is one of four districts — St. Cloud, Forest Lake and Eastern Carver County being the others — to be recognized by the state Department of Education as an exemplar district for "sustaining schoolwide PBIS with fidelity" in the 2017-18 school year. A key to success is consistency, and staff buy-in, and in St. Paul even cafeteria supervisors were briefed about what it takes to make the tactics work.

"Be aware of your tone," Erin Metz, a PBIS district coordinator, said. "Sarcasm rarely works with kids."

At times, students can be challenging, she added, passing up fruits and vegetables.

"Or banging on the milk cooler," a cafeteria supervisor interjected.

Employees were told to be fun and creative, to say something like, "You want to see better? Put carrots on your plate," to kids who balk at the healthy stuff.

Still, St. Paul is alone among the four model districts in being flagged by the Human Rights Department for its suspension and expulsion disparities. And the use of PBIS at one St. Paul school was the subject of criticism in a recent U.S. District Court deposition.

Tough or not?

St. Paul has known for years about the disproportionate percentages of minority students being disciplined, and at one time went so far as to offer financial incentives to principals to trim their suspension numbers — a move that spurred criticism and later was dropped.

The district also took steps to remove potential bias from disciplinary decisions by eliminating "continual willful disobedience" from a list of suspendable violations. Similarly, Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey has expressed concerns, too, about the large percentage of suspensions statewide that the department says were based on "subjective reasons that did not involve physical harm to others, weapons or illegal drugs."

St. Paul's efforts to reduce suspensions was criticized by an elementary teacher, Aaron Benner, who said the district was failing to hold black children accountable for disruptive behavior. Benner, who is black, has sued the school system in U.S. District Court alleging it retaliated against him for his comments. In a deposition in July, he also noted how he'd taken issue with a principal who allowed kids who did not meet PBIS behavioral goals to attend a party dedicated to that purpose.

"I told her in her office, I said, 'This is wrong on so many levels ... they can go to the party after hitting kids, fighting?' And she looked me right in the face and said, 'If you don't get on board with these racial equity policies you're — you're not going to have a job,'" Benner testified.

District spokeswoman Toya Stewart Downey said that the district does not comment on pending litigation.

Benner's criticism of his former school's PBIS practices dates to 2013-14. The subsequent state honors indicate districtwide improvement on the fidelity front. Numbers still can be troubling — black students accounted for nearly 75 percent of out-of-school suspensions in the first three quarters of 2017-18 even though they represent only 27 percent of the student body — but Superintendent Joe Gothard is encouraged enough to want to expand PBIS as part of his new strategic plan.

Using data to inform behavioral strategies is a big part of PBIS work and St. Paul's Murray Middle School, which encountered growing pains in the middle school restructuring, drew on an examination of its discipline referrals to give kids options to leave the lunchroom for other activities when they were done eating.

"We decided opportunities for a midday body/mind break was an opportunity to explore, and the results have proved successful," said Stacy Theien-Collins, a former Murray principal who now is principal of Como Park Senior High.

Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet has the distinction of being honored by the state for its PBIS work for four years running. All around the East Side school — in three different languages — are signs with reminders of the "4 B's" that constitute Phalen Pride: "Be respectful. Be responsible. Be safe. Be a learner."

On a recent Friday, the day began with students gathered in circles. On one floor, fifth-graders took turns explaining what it meant to be "present" in the classroom. On another, first-graders in the Hmong dual language immersion program played a variation of "Simon says" during which they also practiced math.

"We find that students are most successful when they have adults greeting them and welcoming them into the day," Principal Catherine Rich said.

In each of the classrooms, kids listened, shared thoughts and behaved. Teachers were enthusiastic and attentive. The only real difference was the language being spoken.