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From pushback to engagement: How Minnesota school districts have reacted to being flagged for discipline disparities

Anoka-Hennepin and one other district have refused to enter an agreement with the Department of Human Rights, while 41 are in a formal process to identify and address disparities.

How Minnesota school districts have reacted to being flagged for discipline disparities
The Human Rights Department began its investigation by looking at suspensions, expulsions and exclusions that schools and districts self-report to the state Department of Education.
Photo by Banter Snaps on Unsplash

This past school year, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights has monitored discipline disparities in 41 school districts and charter schools that have entered into agreements to address identified disparities. Forty-three districts were notified in late 2017 that they were under investigation for allegedly violating the state Human Rights Act.

School leaders from the 41 that entered agreements convened four times over the course of the school year to share best practices and dig into the role that implicit bias plays in how suspensions and expulsions for subjective offenses, like disorderly conduct, are doled out to students of color and students with disabilities. Per their agreements with the Department of Human Rights, participation in this group — a diversion committee, run in partnership with the state Department of Education — is mandatory. 

The department, however, has yet to persuade leaders of the state’s largest district, Anoka-Hennepin schools, to enter into an agreement. 

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According to the superintendent, “Our school board just came off a five-year consent agreement with the federal government and they were gun shy to join into another agreement without understanding: What is the agreement?” said Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent David Law. 

Eric Pringrey
Supt. Eric Pringrey
Leaders of one other district initially flagged by the department for concerning discipline disparities, Walker-Hackensack-Akeley, have also decided they’d rather deal with the threat of legal action than enter into an agreement.

“The district did not engage in any disparate treatment of students in its disciplinary practices,” wrote Walker-Hackensack-Akeley Superintendent Eric Pringrey in an email. “The district did not enter into a conciliation agreement because there was no need to and doing so would imply that the district had done something wrong.”

Both districts  — which have publicly outed themselves in local news reports — are currently under active investigation for allegations of discrimination by the state Department of Human Rights, because they have chosen not to enter into an agreement. The department’s new commissioner, Rebecca Lucero, refused to identify the two districts by name, since they’re under active investigation by her department. But she did offer assurance that these cases have not stalled.  

“Once we went in, we were able to peel back again and dig into the data even more,” she said. “And … even more problems have come to light. It’s clear that it’s important that these investigations continue on so we can look to solving these problems.”

Digging into discipline data

The Human Rights Department began its investigation by looking at suspensions, expulsions and exclusions that schools and districts self-report to the state Department of Education. It’s compiled in the Discipline Incident Reporting System, commonly known as DIRS. 

The department narrowed the scope of its data analysis to subjective categories, like bullying, disruptive conduct or intimidation. For the 2015-16 school year, the state Department of Human Rights found that 55 percent of all suspensions and expulsions statewide fell into those categories. 

“This is where, really, implicit bias is coming into it — where you see black and brown students being [called] ‘loud and aggressive’ because of the very nature of their skin color,” Lucero said.

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To identify districts and charters with the most concerning subjective exclusionary discipline disparities, the department ran its own private analysis of DIRS data spanning a five-year period (from 2011-2016). 

As indicated in a speadsheet of 2015-16 data, analyzed by the department, a handful of districts actually issued suspension and expulsions for subjective reasons at a much lower rate than the Minnesota average. But, when broken down by specific student groups, large disparities exist. 

For instance, one district (not identified by name) only suspends or expels students for subjective reasons at a rate of 1 percent. In that same district, black and Native American students only make up 11 percent of the student body, yet 40 percent of all suspensions and expulsions for subjective reasons were given to these students.

Lucero is clear that her department is not looking to have districts and charters issue moratoriums on all suspension or expulsions. Things like suspensions and expulsions for bringing a weapon to school are outside the scope of her department’s analysis, she said. 

Additionally, districts that have entered into agreements were tasked with crafting their own action plan — a measure aimed at allowing all districts and charters to maintain local control over how they address discipline disparities at their schools.

Commissioner Rebecca Lucero
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Commissioner Rebecca Lucero says one key finding is that bias training has proven foundational in creating real change.
One exception, Lucero points out, is a policy piece baked into every single agreement: School resource officers or security guards cannot be involved in making discipline decisions for students. 

“So their role is to potentially intervene in a situation. But then the decision about what happens with that child has to be [made by] school personnel,” Lucero said, noting that “was a shift for some schools.”

All of these plans, along with updates submitted twice a year, are made publicly available on the department’s website, here

In working with district and charter leaders who are participating in the diversion committee meetings, Lucero says one key finding is that bias training has proven foundational in creating real change. 

“We heard from many school districts that felt like: ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t a real problem of ours. We care deeply about our students,” she said. “And this is why it’s so important to talk about the bias that’s built into everything that we do. Because we’re talking about teachers who care deeply — who’ve invested their lives, who are very mission-driven, are incredibly loving. And at the end of the day, the impact is we’re still seeing these racial disparities.”

A prolonged stalemate

While the Anoka-Hennepin school board has refused to sign an agreement with the state Department of Human Rights, Law says his bosses did authorize him, last summer, to work directly with the department. In an initial mediation process, he says they asked for an exception: allow district leadership to participate in the diversion committee meetings without a signed agreement from the board. 

The Department of Human Rights rejected that offer. 

Supt. David Law
Anoka-Hennepin School District
Supt. David Law
“I think a big misunderstanding is that our board is not participating because we don’t care about this topic,” Law said. ‘To the contrary … we’ve been focusing on this well before this came along. We’re committed to it. We’ve met with them. We said we’ll join. We think we have things to share. We’re going to continue to monitor the process. If they wanted to willingly let us participate, we’d be there next week.”

It seems unlikely the Department of Human Rights would be willing to compromise. Bottom line, the department sees itself as an enforcer of human rights, including equal access to an education. And right now, it’s cracking down on discipline disparities. 

Similar to other cases handled by the department, Lucero says, folks concerned about discipline disparities in schools across Minnesota brought this issue to the department’s attention for further investigation. Their data analysis made it clear this was an issue that needed to be addressed.

“What we see is when it comes to disparities in Minnesota — across the board, in housing, employment and education — is you’ve got a lot of good, really well-intentioned folks who’ve been doing really good work, potentially, but it’s not working. It’s not making a dent,” Lucero said. “Unless we’re actually willing to have some accountability and some metrics and move forward on this, then we’re actually just choosing to kind of let the status quo continue. And we need to choose to do things differently.” 

If, in fact, the department’s investigators determine there is probable cause of discrimination in the Anoka-Hennepin district — and the two parties cannot reach a settlement — then the case could make its way to the state’s attorney general, Keith Ellison. 

Law says he hopes his district doesn’t have to “waste time in litigation to come up with the solutions we already have in place.” 

That includes efforts like annual training on “discipline and potentials for disparity” for all principals and assistant principals; as well as assigned discipline staff at the elementary and secondary levels “to make sure we’re consistent across the system, with an eye on potential inequities based on race.”

More strained relationships

The Anoka-Hennepin district may be an outlier in its willingness to enter into a legal battle with the state Department of Human Rights. But Law says his concerns about the power dynamic are shared by many of his colleagues representing the 41 districts and charters that are currently in agreements with the department. 

“I’ve met with the other superintendents that are involved in this process probably two dozen times throughout the year,” said Law. “I have yet to hear anything that makes them feel clarity with what the process is. Or, to be honest, that there’s value yet — that they’ve heard something from that group that they aren’t already doing.”

One such metro-area superintendent (who only agreed to interview, if granted anonymity), said the relationships have already been soured. When first contacted by then-commissioner Kevin Lindsey, the superintendent said, the district felt it had no real choice but to enter into an agreement, since the commissioner is “judge, jury and executioner.”

While everyone at the diversion committee meetings shares a commitment to creating “more safe, more secure, and more effective school cultures, with suspensible incidents reduced,” this superintendent says, the mandatory diversion committee meetings lack genuine buy-in.

“Generally, the meetings are a two-hour condescension fest, where they talk down to us for a period of time. And our role is to sit there and not get ourselves in further trouble,” the superintendent said. 

Building a tool kit

Not all participating district and charter leaders feel that way. 

The Brooklyn Center Community Schools superintendent, Carly Baker, says that while “people see this as a black eye, from a publicity standpoint,” the discipline data driving the Department of Human Rights’ involvement are not made up. 

“I think superintendents and school boards are sort of at a variety of places on the spectrum of acceptance,” she said. “And we’re choosing to run toward it.”

She says she and her colleagues have chosen to view the state Department of Human Rights’s involvement “as a lever.” She adds this is work they “see incredible value in anyway, and would be doing despite the notification.”

Educators in her district have received training on a number of strategies targeted at reducing disparities in exclusionary discipline practices — things like restorative practices and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, commonly known at PBIS. 

Through efforts like this, they’ve seen the overall suspension and expulsion numbers come down, “yet the patterns of disproportionality are still there,” Baker said.

Minnesota Department of Human Rights
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
This past school year, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights has monitored discipline disparities in 41 school districts and charter schools that have entered into agreements to address identified disparities.
So they’re investing more resources and training into refining and scaling up efforts to become more culturally and linguistically responsive, as a system. That work involves a handful of newly designated teacher leaders, who are tasked with observing their peers in the classroom and offering constructive feedback on how to be more culturally and linguistically responsive. 

Say a student of color is calling across the room to a classmate, while the teacher is talking. The teacher, based on their own cultural identity, as a white teacher, may feel some level of disrespect,” Baker said, offering an example. 

Rather than issue a referral to that student, she said, educators in her district are being challenged to pause consider how home culture may influence students’ behaviors, rather than jump to worst intentions. In this case, perhaps “it’s a norm in your household to have multiple conversations across the table,” she said.

Baker, along with leaders from the other 40 districts and charters that have entered into agreements with the state Department of Human Rights, are all required to help compile best practices for reducing discipline disparities. Lucero says this may end up taking the shape of a tool kit — similar to the took kit the department helped published for transgender and gender nonconforming students. But, she says, the end product is still a work in progress.

“We’re really looking at it as: 41 schools have come to the table and said, ‘We want to be solution-oriented about this.’ So this feels like a partnership,” Lucero said. “I think that is a shift from how schools felt they were being treated — and maybe needed to, as part of an enforcement element and making people recognize there’s a problem here.

She says this work is a priority for both her and the new education commissioner, Mary Cathryn Ricker. And that means “we expect everyone to perform.”

“Are there some schools across the board that maybe aren’t doing their part as much as they should be? Yes,” she said. “We’re looking into that. I don’t want to assume worst intentions.”