Minnesota Department of Human Rights warns 43 school districts and charters over discipline disparities

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights has identified patterns of discipline disparities, over a 5-year period, that suggest several school districts and charters have discriminatory discipline practices and policies.

Last fall, the state Department of Human Rights delivered letters to 43 Minnesota school districts and charters, notifying them that — based on significant disparities in their student discipline data — they were under investigation for violating the state Human Rights Act.

That investigation has been unfolding over the course of the last several months, as state officials contacted each individual school district or charter to set up in-person meetings and work out any disagreements or misunderstandings.

Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey says that department staffers have now met with leadership from all 43 school districts and charters, which are located all across the state. MinnPost’s repeated requests for a list of the school districts and charter schools under review have been denied by the state Department of Human Rights, on the grounds that these districts and charters are currently under investigation.

As negotiations continue, Lindsey says he’s hopeful that all of the districts will enter into agreements with the department to work toward reducing discipline disparities that disproportionately impact students of color — especially Native American and African-American students — along with students with disabilities.

The investigation comes at a time when federal officials are taking a step back from enforcing equitable access to public education for marginalized student groups. To fill the void in oversight, the state Department of Human Rights has identified patterns of discipline disparities over a 5-year period that suggest several school districts and charters have discriminatory discipline practices and policies.

In the event that a school district or charter that’s been flagged won’t cooperate with the department, Lindsey says the state will initiate litigation.

“We’re really trying to scratch out and understand: Why are they making those decisions?” he said. “And those decisions have consequences, because if kids aren’t in the classroom, they can’t learn. If kids aren’t learning, they don’t graduate. Kids that don’t graduate face a situation that makes it far more likely they are going to make bad choices and potentially end up in our criminal justice system. If they end up in our criminal justice system, they’re not productive workers. They’re not productive citizens. That makes it more difficult for Minnesota to thrive and succeed going forward. So it’s really important for us to disrupt that cycle.”

The investigation

Lindsey says the Human Rights Department began its investigation by looking at suspensions, expulsions and exclusions logged in the state Department of Education’s Discipline Incident Reporting System, commonly known as DIRS. Schools and districts self-report yearly exclusionary discipline incidents, broken down by race, disability, gender and the type of incident — with categories ranging from weapon and fights to cyber bullying and disruptive/disorderly conduct.

MDHR chose to focus on subjective incidents, since it’s an area where disparities tend to be large, and one where reforms can have an impact in reducing disparities. Subjective incidents include things like bullying, disruptive/disorderly conduct, verbal abuse, other, attendance, threats and intimidation, Lindsey said.

For the 2015-16 school year, the MDHR team found that 55 percent of all suspensions and expulsions statewide fell into these subjective categories. African American students were eight times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, while Native American students were 10 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.

Lindsey says his team looked for patterns of disparities over a five year window in both charter schools and school districts. After weeding out districts that may have had some concerning numbers but not on a consistent basis, they issued notices to 43 school districts and charters.

“The way in which we had the conversation with charter schools and school districts is that we talked about the application of suspension decisions throughout the entire school district,” Lindsey said, noting some had a better understanding of which individual school sites within their district had greater disparities than others.

The reactions from school districts and charters have been mixed. Sensitive to the fact that school leaders may react negatively to any signs of finger-pointing, Lindsey says his department has been taking great caution to steer the conversations in a positive direction, focused on collaboration and shared goals around student success.

“Within the space of human rights, or working on civil rights issues, tenuous, hard work can easily be derailed through no fault of anyone — just by the way in which a nuance is given to some communication,” he said. “For us, this is really important — given the number of students that we’re talking about and the impact that trajectory on their life could be. So, we want to be very diligent and careful in our communications and in our collaborations with school districts and charters, to best position us for success.”

His department is not looking to tell schools what they must do, he adds. “What’s really important for the Department is to make sure that each school district is  being consistent with the training that it’s providing to all its school personnel, and that there’s regular monitoring and oversight,” Lindsey said.

In terms of holding school districts and charters accountable, Lindsey says this piece of the process is still being fleshed out in negotiations. What he can say is that there will be a mix of resources to support this work moving forward. He says he’d like to tap into expertise that exists at the state Department of Education to assist school districts and charters in implemented discipline reforms. He also suspects they will form some type of committee to facilitate the sharing of best practices.

Why disparities matter

Researchers have been aware of discipline disparities in schools since at least the 1970s, not long after many public schools were integrated, said Edward Morris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky who studies racial disparities in school discipline.

In the 1990s, zero-tolerance policies in schools and rising numbers of suspensions coincided with tough-on-crime attitudes in the justice system and rising incarceration rates, Morris said. “This ethos swept, I think, across different institutions throughout society, including education,” Morris said.

Think “Lean on Me,” Morris said — the 1989 based-on-a-true-story film about an inner-city New Jersey principal, played by Morgan Freeman, whose plan to save his school from state takeover included kicking out the troublemakers.

As a result of  punitive efforts to impose order in classrooms, school suspensions increased rapidly in the ’90s. At the same time, progress on reducing achievement gaps stalled. “The no-brainer thing is it’s hard for kids to learn if they’re not in school, especially kids that are more vulnerable, which tends to be the kids who get suspensions,” Morris said.

Pulling kids out of the classroom as a means to correct behavior doesn’t work, Morris said: one of the best predictors of whether a kid will get suspended is if he or she has previously been suspended.

Suspensions are also associated with poor performance on tests. In a 2016 study, Morris and others found discipline disparities account for about a fifth of the difference in school performance between black and white students. Nationally, he said, about 16 percent of black students are suspended in a given school year compared to just 5 percent of white students.

“We controlled for income, we controlled for prior achievement, special education status, single-parent households, pretty much anything you could think of that might be related to differences in behavior,” Morris said.

That means, Morris said, that implicit bias — unconscious attitudes about race — is the likely explanation for differences in discipline. “The perceptions of the behavior of kids are being read through a racialized lens,” he said. “The same types of behavior, when demonstrated by an African American girl, is perceived very differently than if it is shown by a white girl or an Asian girl.”

If implicit biases are to blame, that suggests the fix is in reducing the impulse — conscious or not — to treat kids differently based on race.

That often means giving teachers access to rigorous implicit bias training, the best kind of which empowers people to recognize how their perceptions of people are colored by race. “I’ve been through those types of trainings. They can be done well or not done well, but when they’re done well, you get a sense that you’re more in control of what’s hidden or implicit, and then you have more power over your perceptions,” Morris said.

Comments (32)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/02/2018 - 07:36 pm.

    Nope

    Actually, pulling kids out of class for bad behavior does work – for the kids who are actually interested in learning. Those kids are happy not to be subjecting to constant disruption, bullying, sexual harassment, and even violence from the kids getting suspended.

    The troublemakers aren’t doing well in school? Well, no kidding. But the cause isnt the suspensions – its whatever led them to their bad behavior in the first place.

    • Submitted by Toni Bergner on 02/06/2018 - 03:58 pm.

      Complex

      This is a very complex problem as are so many problems in our society. I certainly understand that unruly, disruptive students put other student’s education, and sometimes their safety, at risk while understanding that students who are disruptive and don’t achieve are a burden on society and will continue the cycle in which they live. They fail at school and then we turn them loose, as failures, into society and have to deal with those problems. Schools are to improve test scores …… but then have to keep/count student scores who don’t care about achievement and doing well on scores. And those students, in fact, discourage conscientious students from achieving and learning. Schools/educators are to stop bullying ….. but, then are criticized because there are still bullies in school. Schools are to teach values and kindness ….. but, then the kids who don’t value that return to their homes at the end of the school day. Do people realize that kids, from birth to age 18, spend approximately 10% of their lives in school and 90% of their lives away from school? Do schools stand a chance of making real change in a kid’s life????? Really????? Schools do all they can in that 10% of their time ….. and then the kid, from a difficult home life, returns to …….

      I also understand that suspending those kids and having them return to a disfunctional home …. isn’t solving the problem. How does a kid get better by being sent home to a ‘crappy’ environment? I would hope that schools can suspend a kid from class, so that others can continue to learn, and that there is major funding for settings for the disruptive kid to go to, in school, where he/she can settle down and continue their education. I don’t have all the answers. Schools have to do so, so much.

      If we are really serious about making changes …… what would make a significant difference in kid’s lives is if they would be taken out of those difficult situations and stay in dormitories ….. much like a college campus setting. And, if there were some requirement for people becoming a parent. We have so, so many inadequate parents and absent fathers and broken families. But, I know where that will go. I am afraid that we are set up for failure.

      Schools are being told to change how they handle the discipline of unruly students and keep them in school with no directive regarding how to do that ….. keep them in school and get them to pass standardized tests while making other students comfortable and safe. Hmmmmm …….. Work a miracle.

      There needs to be a realization in our society ……. do we need to change ‘us’ or do ‘they’ need to change? The ‘us’ and ‘they’ can be any culture/group of people. Are ‘we’ always the ones who are wrong and therefore need to adapt our lives to ‘their’ lives? Do we really want to continue to go in that direction? Does it occur to cultures/groups of people that ….. maybe ‘we’ have to get better and correct what is wrong in our culture/group instead of blaming other cultures/groups for the problems ‘we’ create? Some of those problems are addressed by others who have commented to this article.

      I just don’t see much leadership sometimes or the leadership is leading in the wrong direction.

      ‘We’ all need to change/adapt/improve …. but, sometimes it seems that is very imbalanced.

  2. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 02/03/2018 - 08:02 am.

    Behavior Disparities

    Maybe the focus should be on behavior disparities instead.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/03/2018 - 09:44 am.

    Districts AND Charters?

    I think something of a journalistic fail to not flesh this out… what does “districts and charters” mean? Since all Charters reside with districts, what’s the distinction and why is that information not provided?

    I think Minnpost staff writers should be sensitive to this because it’s well known that Minnpost founders were major players in the Charter School movement. I’ve also noticed some favoritism regarding Charter School coverage once and while here on Minnpost.

    Are these disparities “district” wide, or are they concentrated in individual schools? If they are concentrated in individual schools, which schools, and what is the prevalence? We already know from multiple data sources that Charter Schools have promoted increased segregation, so if they’re also discriminating in terms of discipline, we should know that as well. In other words, of the 43 letters, how many went to districts, how many went individual schools, and how many of those schools were Charters Schools? This is pretty basic who, what, where, when, stuff in terms of journalism. Some readers might consider the omission of that information to be a little suspicious.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/03/2018 - 03:51 pm.

      Some favoritism?

      Minnpost is basically a P.R. firm for charter schools.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/04/2018 - 05:38 pm.

      Did you miss this

      “MinnPost’s repeated requests for a list of the school districts and charter schools under review have been denied by the state Department of Human Rights, on the grounds that these districts and charters are currently under investigation.”

      I think you should probably hold off on the accusations until you have some proof.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/06/2018 - 10:12 am.

        Relevant Number

        It would be interesting to know how many were school districts and how many were charters, even if the names of individual schools are not listed.

        Saying that MinnPost has been cheering for charter schools is a statement of fact, not an accusation. For a long time, charters were invariably referred to as either “high performing” or “odds defying.”

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/06/2018 - 11:31 am.

          Must have been a long time ago, I have been participating here for ~5 years and have seen no real sign of this bias.

          And of course sometimes charters and magnets will out perform traditional public schools, the Staff, Work Rules and the Parent(s) of the students are different.

          People who go to these schools to work or learn “opt in”.

          Where as the Traditional Public schools are the “default”.

          Of course the near monopolistic Traditional Public schools have retained higher funding levels that are supposed to make up for this.

          It is a complicated issue… For sure…

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/07/2018 - 08:05 am.

        No, I didn’t miss that

        Two things: First, I don’t see anyone demanding names, just more details on the numbers. If for instance you have a district with 4 schools, did they send letter to two schools AND the district for a total of 3 letters? And of the two schools who received letters how many of them were charters?

        If the Department of Education is refusing to release THAT information, than frankly THAT’S the story because there’s no good or legal reason to withhold that information.

        Second: Since we’re talking about public institutions (or at least we’re supposed to be talking about public institutions) not individuals, there are no privacy or data practice laws preventing disclosure. Unless we’re talking about criminal violations it’s in the public’s interest to know which schools are potentially violating civil rights. The Dept. of Ed is NOT a regulatory agency… or at least it’s not supposed to be. If this looks like a charter school regulatory agency protecting the entities it’s supposed to be regulating from bad press… that’s reason 532 to NOT have charter schools. Transparency is essential to any competent educations system, and charter school advocates have been promising that transparency for decades.

  4. Submitted by Mark Kulda on 02/03/2018 - 12:06 pm.

    Missing context

    There is context missing in this article and the whole issue. They are comparing statistics of suspensions and expulsions but there’s nothing at all said about the number of behavioral incidents broken down by race. Is the disparity because more black and Native American students actually commit more incidents? If that’s the case, then of course they will be punished more. The report is unclear when it says black and Native students are more likely to be suspended. It doesn’t say if they are comparing the regular student population or just those who are in trouble. If it were….of those who are facing discipline, they are more likely than whites to be suspended, then there is a problem. I wish somebody would clear this up.

    • Submitted by jim hughes on 02/03/2018 - 06:48 pm.

      It’s hard to know…

      This whole thing is so obfuscated with politically correct euphemisms it’s hard to know what they’re even talking about in reality.

      One thing I’m pretty sure about, though, is that in another generation public education as we’ve known it will be a thing of the past. The entire middle class will have its children in private schools.

  5. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/03/2018 - 03:55 pm.

    Discipline

    Has anyone been able to show that black kids and white kids get different punishments for the same behavior? Because that’s a problem. But if all you have is data showing more black kids are getting diciplined without looking at the actual behavior numbers, you’ve got nothing.

  6. Submitted by John Appelen on 02/04/2018 - 05:49 pm.

    normalizing

    I would love to know more about this.

    ““We controlled for income, we controlled for prior achievement, special education status, single-parent households, pretty much anything you could think of that might be related to differences in behavior,” Morris said.”

    And I am curious if race may actually be a causal factor of improper behavior?

    Now stick with me here. Imagine if you have been told from birth that people in power are out to get you. That the system is unfair… Could that cause a young person to behave differently in class? Especially in how they respond when a Teacher tries to correct their behavior.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 02/05/2018 - 11:30 am.

      Total Fiction!,

      At 5 years old when you learn how to behave in a classroom, you are not aware of all the issues you bring up. The troubled students have decided, for whatever reason, not to follow the basic rules of behavior you learn in K-2. Making up excuses never helps with solving problems.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/06/2018 - 12:01 am.

        Interesting

        I think you are underestimating the critical nature of the first 5 years of life. Here is a useful source.
        https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/brain_development.pdf

        So let’s say that the toddlers and preschoolers are being raised by a single parent who is somewhat immature with a lower academic capability. Therefore they have little money, little household stability, change schools often, sometimes are short food and they feel like a victim of our capitalistic society. Throw on top of this that they are a minority who has bought into the idea that the world is set against them.

        After reading the source above, how do you think that would work in preparing the kids for school?

        Now remember that school only has the kids for ~7 hours per day for ~172 days per year. The rest of the time the children are exposed to the challenges noted above, which constantly try to reinforce their 0 to 5 year habits.

        Speaking for myself, I knew how to behave in class long before I got to kindergarten. I had been taught appropriate social skills, my life had been very secure, I had been exposed to many positive experiences, at least one of my Parents was with me most of the time, we never wanted for money or food, etc. I was truly lucky.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/06/2018 - 11:30 am.

        Awareness

        Children are more aware of their environment than adults might think. They may not understand context as completely, and are unlikely to be able to articulate their understanding, but that understanding is very real.

        “The troubled students have decided, for whatever reason, not to follow the basic rules of behavior you learn in K-2.” Is it a conscious decision when proper behavior has not been modeled for you?

        “Making up excuses never helps with solving problems.” Finding reasons for those problems is, however, essential for a solution.

  7. Submitted by Robert Owen on 02/05/2018 - 08:17 am.

    Implicit bias is a polite way of saying racism.

  8. Submitted by John N. Finn on 02/05/2018 - 11:22 am.

    FWIW

    On my Greater Minnesota school bus which has a mixed racial makeup, I do make an effort to strike a balance in reporting disipline incidents even though what must be my implicit bias leads me to consider the riders of color as more of a problem.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/06/2018 - 12:56 pm.

      Serious

      So if you watch the situations from a dispassionate third party perspective…
      Fully aware that you may be biased…

      Do you think that subset of riders causes more problems?
      Or Do you think that you are truly biased?

      I am very curious.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/07/2018 - 08:16 am.

    What’s the point?

    At some point you have to ask yourself… or ask the journalist: “What’s the point here?”

    The fact that the Dept. of Ed sent out 43 letters isn’t actually much of story if you strip it of any significant details. We have number of basic basic basic questions being raised in the comments that should have been addressed in the article itself.

    Yes, are we talking about raw discipline numbers, or are we talking about disparate punishment for similar violations? How many schools got letters, and how many of those schools were charters? Were they ALL charters?

    If the Dept. of Ed or any other government agency is refusing to release more detailed information they are required by law to cite the statute that allows them to do that, they can’t say “it under investigation”. Law enforcement agencies who are investigating criminal activity have more latitude withholding information but the Dept. of Ed isn’t a law enforcement agency. If an agency is refusing to release information they’re required to provide, THAT’S a story, or at least it should be part of the story.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/07/2018 - 11:36 am.

      One Point

      MN Dept of Human Rights is apparently busy trying to micromanage school districts instead of leaving them to their elected Board and voters. I wonder how big their budget is? 🙂

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/07/2018 - 02:17 pm.

        Micromanage?

        I don’t think following a mandate to enforce human rights laws constitutes “micromanaging.”

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/07/2018 - 03:59 pm.

          Interesting

          I wonder who asked them to research this topic?

          Or if they decided to go snooping of their own volition?
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnesota_Department_of_Human_Rights

          It seems to me that this group of State personnel playing in the Dept of Education’s and Local School Boards sandboxes is a bit atypical.

          The big question: Is there truly a problem, or are they just making a problem?

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/07/2018 - 04:20 pm.

            Very Interesting

            Taking the initiative and investigating possible violations of the law is not what I would call “snooping.” Nor do I call it “just making a problem.”

            I refuse to be cavalier about human rights, and I am glad that the state is also taking that attitude.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/08/2018 - 03:27 pm.

            Cavalier

            I guess I have never thought that my local elected officials, the admins they hire or the Teachers are cavalier about human rights either… I suppose it is possible however I have a bit more faith in the Teachers and their use of good judgment in the classroom.

            Besides most of the complaints I have heard from Parents and Teachers is that they are being forced to keep extremely disruptive kids in the classroom against their will.

            One little girl told another little girl on the playground that she was going to take a knife and cut her throat… The parents of the threatened child complained to the Principal and was told that due to district equality goals they really could not punish the threatening girl. Of course the concerned Parents took their daughter to a less risky situation.

            And we wonder why some schools lose their best students and Parents?

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/09/2018 - 01:11 pm.

            Local Elected Officials

            There are many reasons to have an outside agency investigating/overseeing the conduct of local school boards. The metaphor of the fox and the hen-house springs to mind.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/09/2018 - 03:18 pm.

            But who is going to oversee the overseers… 🙂

            No wonder we had to raise government spending again.

            I hope our kids forgive us all the debt we are building up for them.

            I think the Board, the Admin AND a the Teachers are enough oversight.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/09/2018 - 03:29 pm.

            Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

            It’s funny how that phrase comes in handy. Makes one glad of the opportunity for a classical education.

            Just as a mater of general institutional behavior, how realistic is it to expect any group to take it upon itself to admit wrongdoing, without outside pressure?

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/09/2018 - 11:33 pm.

            Conspiracy

            So somehow there is going to be a district wide conspiracy where Teachers, Parents, Principals, Administrators and the Board are going to keep this secret hidden in this modern time of law suits, social media, etc?

            It will be interesting to see if there are any fires if and /or when the final report comes out.

  10. Submitted by Cathy Erickson on 02/07/2018 - 01:15 pm.

    Data

    Here’s a link to summarized data reports created by the MN Dept. of Education, and submitted to the Legislature, regarding district submitted disciplinary incidents:
    https://www.leg.state.mn.us/edocs/edocs?oclcnumber=60620019

    The reports are statewide totals.

    I did also scroll through the 2016 Morris study – the statistical analysis was too complicated for me, but the commentary in the discussion, results, and conclusion didn’t exactly assure me that if suspensions were reduced we’d see better test scores for those students, even though that’s what the numbers told them, I guess.

    What might be interesting is a study on the rest of the students in a classroom or district where students with behavior issues are kept in the classroom setting…or the impact on teacher retention.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/08/2018 - 08:29 am.

    Two things

    First I have to correct myself, it was the Dept. of Human Rights, not the Dept. of Ed that sent out the letters, I was mistaken in an earlier comment. The Dept. of Human Rights is technically a regulatory agency.

    Second, thanks to Cathy Erickson for her link. However the data reported there doesn’t compare types of discipline among different demographics, it simply documents numbers. So the question of whether not higher numbers among minorities is result of discrimination vs. higher instances of bad behavior can’t easily be derived from this data set. Also, I’m not sure we know that the Human Rights Department based their decisions on this data alone.

    There are some things you could do to try to tease more detail out of this data, and you could take additional steps to collect more information… but that all costs money. The legislature would have to appropriate additional funding at a time when they are cutting funding.

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