Students of color and those with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from Minnesota schools than their white peers or students without disabilities, a new study reveals.

The statewide analysis, released Friday by the state's Department of Human Rights, showed that students of color accounted for 66 percent of all school suspensions and expulsions in the 2015-16 school year, even though they make up only 31 percent of Minnesota's student population.

Disabled students were involved in 43 percent of all suspensions and expulsions, but make up only 14 percent of the student population.

"For some schools, this information was somewhat surprising; they hadn't examined this before," Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said. "I'm hoping, by us raising the awareness, it does stay front and center for people in Minnesota. I think there are a lot of folks in the state who want kids to succeed. Hopefully we'll see the disparities drop."

The analysis, which the department hadn't done in recent years, looked at data from all public K-12 schools and charter schools and reflects a broader trend. A 2016 survey found that nationwide, black students were nearly four times as likely to be suspended and nearly twice as likely to be expelled as white students, while students with disabilities were twice as likely to be suspended.

"There are so many other ways besides kicking kids out," said Sue Budd, who is with ISAIAH, a faith-based nonprofit that works on racial and economic equity in Minnesota and has advocated against school suspensions. "There's no silver bullet, but there's all kind of ways these disparities should be addressed."

Implementing more restorative-justice programs and hiring more school counselors could reap far more benefits than punishing students, she said.

Alternative ways

That's what St. Paul City School, a charter school with 480 preschool through eighth-grade students, has done.

In two years, suspensions have gone down 85 percent, and no students have been expelled since the school started using restorative­-justice practices.

Every class at the school, which has 97 percent students of color, starts the day in a circle for students to discuss issues for a few minutes. Students with behavior problems are sent to a counselor or to a restorative-justice team, Principal Justin Tiarks said. Kids are suspended only if there is a significant mental health crisis or a harmful incident between two students, he added.

"We've nearly eliminated the need to suspend," Tiarks said. "It's just a tool we don't use anymore."

In recent years, the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts have come under scrutiny for suspension disparities. Although Friday's report from the Human Rights Department didn't include historical data, in 2016, state education data showed that statewide, student expulsions had fallen by half over the past few years. Mounds View Public Schools, for instance, hasn't expelled a student since the 1970s.

Fixing the gaps

Despite those improvements, Minnesotans have continued to voice concern to the Department of Human Rights about students of color or students with disabilities being suspended more often.

That prompted the department to review five years of school data. After looking at the results, Lindsey said he was surprised to see that American Indian students were 10 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers, and black students were eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students — higher than the national average.

Last fall, his department met with representatives of 43 Minnesota school districts and charter schools to discuss the data and ask schools to come up with plans to fix the disparities, which could be a violation of the state Human Rights Act. If a school and the department can't come to an agreement, the department could file administrative charges, which would require the school to give more information to investigate whether there's sufficient evidence of discrimination. If so, both sides could negotiate a settlement or the case could go to the attorney general's office for litigation — a rare move.

Lindsey said the department is moving toward agreements with school districts that would involve such things as making sure all staffers in a school district have the same understanding of what merits a suspension. If schools leave suspensions up the discretion of staff, "sometimes implicit bias might creep in," he said.

Fixing these disparities could help reduce the state's achievement gap between black and white students and help prepare kids for careers in Minnesota, Lindsey said.

"We're preparing the foundation for the future of Minnesota," he said. "Kids aren't learning if they aren't in school."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib