by CHRIS ROGERS
Over one year into a deal between Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (DHR) meant to curb racial disparities in student discipline, WAPS has made some progress. A large gap in suspension rates for students of color fell slightly last school year — black students went from being suspended 8.5 times more often per capita than white students to seven times more often last year. New WAPS Superintendent Annette Freiheit said WAPS still has a long way to go.
In the 2017-2018 school year, WAPS suspended black students at a rate 8.5 times that of white students, according to data submitted by WAPS to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). At the nearly 80-percent-white school district, white students made up the majority of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. However, relative to the size of the each racial group’s student population, white students were disciplined at a rate of 4.7 suspensions per 100 students and black students at a rate of 39.9 suspensions per 100 students.
That racial disparity in discipline rates dropped slightly during last school year, with black students being suspended seven times more often per 100 students than their white peers, according to data released this week by WAPS. Last year’s disparity is still higher than the 2016-2017 school year, when black students were suspended at a rate 4.5 times higher than that of white students.
While there is still a significant racial disparity in suspension rates, the total number of suspensions is down across the board at WAPS. Among all students, there were 234 suspensions in 2017-2018 and 149 in 2018-2019, according to WAPS’ data. The total number of suspensions among black students fell by over a third last year, from 71 suspensions to 43. Part of the reason the suspension-rate disparity between black and white students did not decline as markedly is because suspensions among white students also fell.
The suspension rates for multi-racial students and Hispanic students also fell last year.
“We’ve got some work to do, absolutely, and some reflection on the strategies we’ve got in place,” Freiheit said in an interview. “Our black students are getting suspended at a higher rate than our white students are, and therefore we need to look at what is causing that, and what do we need to help our staff understand better in order to change that, and what other strategies do we need to put in place and practices that would reduce that disparity.”
As part of its agreement with the DHR, WAPS has provided cultural competency training to teachers and staff meant to help them better relate to students from different cultures. District staff said they worked to develop more alternatives to suspension and more proactive discipline approaches. WAPS is still developing some of its strategies for reducing discipline disparities and participating in a committee of school leaders from across the state working to find solutions.
Do disparities equal discrimination?
Kevin Lindsey was the commissioner of the DHR in 2018 when the agency agreed not to sue WAPS for discrimination, and, in exchange, WAPS agreed to take steps to reduce racial disparities in student discipline. Asked whether the disparities were, in fact, the result unequal discipline or the result of student behavior, Lindsey replied in a 2018 interview, “When systems operate with disparate outcomes and then the person involved in the system cannot really explain why these disparities are occurring, to us at the department, that’s concerning.” When students are suspended from school, Lindsey added, they miss out on opportunities to learn that can affect them for their whole lives.
In a column, former Winona Post owner Fran Edstrom argued that WAPS’ agreement with the DHR might curtail appropriate student discipline.“Isn’t letting some students get away with not sitting and listening, and not treating the teacher and fellow students with respect, the real discrimination here?” she asked.
Last year, former WAPS Superintendent Rich Dahman defended WAPS’ suspension decisions, saying students are not suspended without cause. However, he also acknowledged that student behavior might not be the only reason for the large disparity in suspension rates.
Lindsey was especially concerned about students being suspended for subjective reasons, such as being disruptive or disrespectful, as compared to more objective reasons such as making violent threats.
The parent of one black student suspended from WAPS told the Post, “What kid is not talking to other kids in school? How do you kick him out for this?”
Suspensions for disruptive behavior, disorderly conduct, and insubordination continue to be the number-one reason for suspensions at WAPS.
Asked if she believed the disparity was simply the result of students of color acting out more often, Freiheit said, “I don’t buy that.” She explained, “I don’t want to make blanket statements because I don’t know enough, and I haven’t observed enough classrooms [at WAPS] … But calling a spade a spade, Minnesota has a problem and it’s not just Winona.”
Minnesota has one of the highest academic achievement gaps between students of color and white students in the U.S. Forty-three Minnesota school districts were investigated by the DHR for high racial disparities in student discipline.
Freiheit brings new view to district office
Unlike her predecessor, Freiheit has not hesitated to say that racial disparities in student discipline are a problem that needs to be addressed.
When asked whether the racial disparities in student discipline at WAPS was a problem the district needed to address, former superintendent Dahman responded by focusing on suspensions in general, not racial differences in particular. He said WAPS’ goal was to reduce suspensions for all students.
When asked the same question, Freiheit said, “I see [the racial disparities] as something we do need to address because all students should feel comfortable, welcomed, and accepted in a school district, period. And to me, it’s on our adults to make sure our students feel welcomed.” She added, “We’re only as strong as our weakest link, and relating that to education, our schools are only as good as how well we take care of our students with the least resources.”
WAPS might start reporting disparities to DHR
One thing WAPS has not done yet is report data on racial disparities in students discipline to the DHR directly. WAPS’ agreement with the state agency requires the school district to share semi-annual reports on the number of suspensions with both the School Board and DHR. However, the agreement does not specify that those reports need to have any information on race. So far, they haven’t. Under Dahman, WAPS reported the total number of suspensions among all students, without any breakdown of the data by race. Most other schools who entered agreements with the DHR do report suspensions by race.
How can the DHR know whether WAPS is making progress on racial disparities if it does not report data about the racial disparities to the DHR? “Each district has local control over their strategy for how to reduce disparities and discrepancies and how they report that,” DHR Communications Director Taylor Putz responded in an interview. Since the election of Governor Tim Walz, there’s been a change in leadership at the DHR from Lindsey, who struck the agreements with WAPS and other district, to current commissioner Rebecca Lucero, under whom Putz serves. Putz noted that racial disparity data eventually becomes publicly available through an MDE database.
Asked whether WAPS should start reporting discipline data by race to the DHR, Freiheit said, “Absolutely,” so long as the data maintains student privacy. Freiheit voluntarily shared information on last year’s suspensions with the Winona Post for this story.
As part of its agreement with the DHR, WAPS also conducted a survey of teachers and students this spring, querying them on how welcoming and accepting they felt the schools were. The results were generally good. However, like the DHR reports, that survey did not break down responses by race groups.
Asked whether a survey that doesn’t break down respondents by racial groups tells WAPS much about whether minorities feel welcomed, Freiheit said, “It would be difficult to answer that if you don’t have it broken down by demographics.” She stated that WAPS does need to listen to people who don’t feel welcomed. If a small number of people say they don’t feel weclomed, she said, “I think you need to give that just as much honor and respect as if everyone had commented that way.” She added that she was interested in organizing focus groups to get more information.
As for what other steps WAPS needs to take, Freiheit — who started this summer — said, “I really don’t, unfortunately, have the answers because I haven’t been in it long enough to have the solutions to the problem.” However, she said that reducing the disparities is WAPS’ goal and stressed the importance of finding strategies and potential solutions and evaluating those strategies against the data to see if they are working.
The School Board is slated to discuss suspension rates at its meeting this Thursday evening.