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

How Minnesota school districts have reacted to being flagged for discipline disparities
Photo by Banter Snaps on Unsplash
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.

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. 

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.

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.”

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Curt Johnson on 07/08/2019 - 11:18 am.

    It is the unasked question that is most relevant here. What is the percentage of all students perceived as “disorderly” or something similar? And is the percentage of those suspended or expelled who are students of color higher than the proportional expectation. Then someone needs to ask the kids themselves, “Why are you behaving this way.” We might all learn something useful.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 07/08/2019 - 11:03 pm.

      I don’t know a lot of kids who are suspended for simply shouting across the aisle. You make a good point of asking kids why they are doing what they are doing–teachers are not mental health counselors or therapist. What has been shown to work is having a mental health person in the school or available not only for the student, but also for parents/caregivers so that those skills can be used at home. Kids usually speak through behavior.

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 07/08/2019 - 11:19 am.

    The issue is double standards. In other words, white student who do exactly the same thing as black students are not penalized as consistently. Why would that be? Because that is how rules are enforced in larger society! Why woukd school be any different? In the school setting, higher income parents offer more resistance to discipline than kids who are poor and homeless.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/08/2019 - 11:56 pm.

      Do you have proof that there are double standards? All the racial disparity data shows that students of color are disciplined more often. But is the discipline unfair? On a systematic level.

      I think you are right that wealthy parents do push back on discipline on their kids. But also consider that its children from impoverished families that are getting into trouble far more often. As with school performance itself, its poverty that drives the problem.

  3. Submitted by Mike Downing on 07/08/2019 - 11:40 am.

    This is a well written article by Erin Hindrichs. It does beg one to ask some fundamental questions. Does classroom behavior affect academic achievement? Does listening to and respecting a teacher affect academic achievement?

    Common sense says it does. But common sense is not very common these days…

    I would suggest to Commissioner Rebecca Lucero and her staff to focus on means to achieve improved academic achievement since it appears she and her staff are measuring the wrong outcome.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Gable on 07/08/2019 - 11:58 am.

    I was an educator for more than 40 years – and I enjoyed almost every moment. I do remember the disruptive students “shouting across the room” at a classmate. Perhaps I was wrong to consider the impact the disruption had upon the other students in the classroom. Perhaps I was wrong to be concerned about the students whose cultural norm was to be respectful toward teachers and classmates. Perhaps I was wrong to fail to realize that in some cultures interruptions are not considered disrespectful. Perhaps I was wrong to focus my efforts on the students whose cultural norm was to come to school in order to become a more educated individual. Perhaps I should have learned to ignore those students and focus my efforts upon the disrupters. The answers are probably best given by my former students. Perhaps the Department of Human Rights should consult with the students and parents of students whose educational goals are being inhibited by the disruptive students.

    • Submitted by Kamille Cheese on 07/08/2019 - 05:56 pm.

      You are not wrong, in any of your points. Teachers are individuals who have different methods of teaching and running their classrooms. The Department of Human Rights needs to keep this in mind, as well as parents and students.

  5. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 07/08/2019 - 12:30 pm.

    As typically happens with MinnPost education stories, a bunch of commentators mindlessly jump to defense of school suspensions with the subtext of the hell with “other peoples kids” who are harming “our kids”. While the intentional blindness to implicit biases and racist impacts is itself a problem, it is also willfully ignored that the move away from suspensions is not designed to tolerate disruptive behaviors but to find more effective and long lasting solutions — such as intended here by DHR and MDE. While knee jerk reactions may be cast as “common sense”, actual research shows that overuse of suspension harms not just those cast as the others but EVERYONE in the classroom. (See, or for the article about the study.)

    • Submitted by Sean Fahey on 07/08/2019 - 01:57 pm.

      Thanks for the links, because I have the knee-jerk reaction you are describing whenever I see an article about this topic. But the quote from one of the study’s authors that, “When you are in a very punitive environment, you’re getting the message that the school is focusing on crime control and behavior control,” communicates why suspensions might only be feeding into a toxic classroom environment.

      That study was from 2015, and it looks like a recent study from last year supports the findings that both the classroom’s achievement drops and the suspended student’s achievements drops: There was less negative long term impact on achievement than expected, but I’d imagine suspensions might have other negative impacts to a student that follows them for years.

      Another good article I found was a commentary from a teacher who was attacked in a classroom. She writes both about restorative justice and this new study:

    • Submitted by Toni Bergner on 07/09/2019 - 04:28 pm.

      You make some very good points …. thank you for calming and informing me. Undoubtedly, suspensions hurt by not allowing a disruptive student to be in school where learning occurs. But, schools don’t have a better alternative for the chronically disruptive students who don’t want to change their behavior and simply don’t want to cooperate with teacher or school rules. I have worked in schools where a student was disruptive in class, met with a principal, offered restorative justice options, refused, was told they would have after school detention and would not attend or was sent to in school suspension, was disruptive in that suspension environment and was uncontrollable and therefore had to be sent home. The next day they would come back and the same behavior would occur again ….. and again. At what point does it become the individual’s or family’s responsibility to cooperate with standards?

    • Submitted by Payton Powell on 07/12/2019 - 03:28 pm.

      How long has it been since you’ve been inside a primary or secondary school classroom? I’m thirty, so it has been a little while, but not much has likely changed in the twelve years since I have been inside of a classroom. I understand that we want to guard against “implicit biases” and other progressive catchwords, that’s all well and good, but the reality is that the disparity that we see is often the reality inside of the classrooms. I went to South High School in Minneapolis, right off of Lake Street and it had a large minority population (including me) and I can safely say that it wasn’t the white kids from middle-class backgrounds who were often suspended or causing trouble.

      That is, of course, very unfortunate but it is also the reality of public schools and reflects, more often than not, socioeconomic status than race. The fact is that poverty self-perpetuates itself and the symptoms of poverty often manifest themselves in the classroom via anti-social behavior. It is nearly impossible to change these suspension statistics by efforts by the educators themselves unless they simply stop enforcing rules and let kids run rampant. The only way to change any of these behaviors is to change them at home and that takes a different set of solutions.

  6. Submitted by tom kendrick on 07/08/2019 - 04:02 pm.

    Workshops on cultural sensitivity are good, but much of the legwork to be done here has to be cross-cultural discussions about what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of public behavior, as well as some frank conversations about what we want our public schools to look like/feel like.

  7. Submitted by Miriam Segall on 07/08/2019 - 04:51 pm.

    I may be showing my blindness to “implicit biases”, but sometimes I wonder about these statistics. What are the statistics on discipline for “non-subjective” offenses? To what extent are the students who are being disproportionately disciplined for “subjective” offenses exhibiting behaviors that are normal (or perhaps even protective) in their outside-school environments but not considered by the powers-that-be to be appropriate in school? There has been some interesting research on “code-switching” by black people who use “black English” in some contexts/social situations and “standard English” in others, and reading some of it, I wondered if all of us don’t do this (or its equivalent in our own in-group’s speech) to some extent. Are we looking at a situation where we are expecting behavioral “code-switching” and not seeing it? Do we want to change our expectations of “standard” classroom behavior? Do we simply want to change the statistics by whatever means? Are we convinced that this is all “implicit bias”, or might there be other factors involved?

  8. Submitted by Joe Smith on 07/09/2019 - 07:20 am.

    One set of rules for classroom behavior applied to every student regardless of skin color. The 95% of kids who behave and want to learn should not be distracted by unruly classmates. Our public schools have become a joke where political correctness trumps learning. That is why American kids are falling like rocks in education worldwide.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 07/09/2019 - 12:44 pm.

      I’m proud to say I partially agree with Joe, at least for the first half of his comment. As a former teacher, I can attest that the vast majority of students want to learn. However, there are a few kids which drag the class atmosphere and some of their peers down with them. Teachers have very little influence in this regard, for a complex, but ultimately trivial reason – that administration would rather have schools please students than actually teach.

      However, the attempts at racial equality in discipline are not a result of political correctness. Schools are quite conservative in their organization and goals. Their main goal is to tech conformity and stupidity, primarily for institutional and economic reasons. Republicans are quite happy with this arrangement as problem students can be quickly marginalized and ultimately end up working low wage jobs where the value the generate is not congruent to the profit they provide (service, retail, etc). Then Republicans have an easy punching bag in which they can promote religious education and divert tax dollars to desired constituents.

  9. Submitted by Toni Bergner on 07/09/2019 - 03:52 pm.

    Are you kidding me? So … the example that Bakker offers … a student calling across the room to another student while the teacher is talking ….. is acceptable since that is what is allowable in the student’s home? So anything that happens in a student’s home should be allowable in school? Really? Honestly? The common sense of these bureaucrats is ridiculous. As my 7th grade grandson says his school is in anarchy …. probably an exaggeration, but isn’t that pitiful ….. that a 7th grade student thinks that his school is in anarchy….and it is not an inner city school. Can you imagine what our schools would be like if everything that is done at student’s home is acceptable in schools? That would be anarchy. How would you have standards and rules of acceptable conduct if everything had to be accepted in the schools? And the poor teachers ….. before correcting a student they would have to research what is done in that student’s home. The problem with our society is that we don’t have rules and standards and values …. everything is acceptable …. and that takes us further down the road toward anarchy.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 07/09/2019 - 10:29 pm.

      Which district is your grandson in? It’s important to realize that this isn’t just inner city schools, but all schools which have allowed anarchy and the stultification of children’s education to flourish.

  10. Submitted by Toni Bergner on 07/09/2019 - 04:06 pm.

    Can you imagine a board room meeting, a meeting of employees, an orientation session, any group of people meeting …… and some individuals shouting across the room at others? Isn’t that what our schools are supposed to teach ….. acceptable behavior, being a productive adult, etc? And then we complain about our schools.

  11. Submitted by richard owens on 07/12/2019 - 01:17 pm.

    I have a few questions:

    How big is the class?

    What is the range of achievement between students?

    Is there a range of options for handling disruptive students?

    Do any of those options give the student options to be redeemed?

    Is the administration supportive of stressed out teachers and stressed out students? Our public spaces seem now to be filled with adults BEING disruptive rude and selfish ON TV! Even cursing has become so common we do not get “soothed” in our day-to-day public lives, nearly as much as we get “triggered”.

  12. Submitted by Payton Powell on 07/12/2019 - 03:35 pm.

    I spent my entire high school career at South High School which is located right off of Lake Street in South Minneapolis, and I can safely say that the disproportionate suspensions accurately reflected the disproportionate anti-social behavior by students. This heavily disrupted my educational career, it meant teachers spent more time dealing with bad behavior than teaching, and it meant the entire school environment was one of chaos. Now, for better or worse, at that time schools were experimenting with things called Small Learning Communities (SLC’s) which essentially created segregated student populations within the building. Kids in my program and one other program had the better students while others were placed in programs meant for those who lived in the neighborhood but didn’t have the grades to qualify.

    Personally, I believe that anti-social behavior in the classroom has more to do with socioeconomic status rather than race, and I believe that ultimately the suspension records are fairly accurate of how that plays out. However, that also means that the changes can’t come from within the educational system itself but from their home environments which would require an entirely different focus altogether.

    I also know that because of my negative experiences withing the Minneapolis Public School system, and the similar problems faced by the St. Paul Public school systems that we will likely send our own children to private schools or suburban schools to avoid the problems that we faced.

  13. Submitted by kathy taykalo on 07/14/2019 - 02:45 pm.

    I didn’t see any comments about students with learning disabilities. My daughter has a learning disability and if she didn’t understand directions in 1st and 2nd grade she was humiliated and punished. She attended two years of preschool and was reading books,adding and subtracting,etc. Her preschool teachers said she was gifted. When teachers started demeaning her, it sent a signal to some kids that they could bully her. The school did testing and labeled her as developmentally disabled. I had private testing done three different times. The schools are always right. They don’t listen to parents unless they have money,power,or both. We were called to pick her up from school due to head injuries. She learned how to be a victim and not speak up! Thanks for the great education my tax dollars paid for!

  14. Submitted by Ken Johnson on 07/16/2019 - 01:02 pm.

    its all about accountability- your skin color shouldn’t dictate your ability or inability to be respectful, understand the rules of the organization, etc…the one thing schools focus and provide examples on from day one- structure, respect, learning, treating each other fairly, how to interact- to paint the picture that schools are the culprit–go a little deeper–

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