by CHRIS ROGERS
It is hard for students to learn if they are not in the classroom. That is the message then-commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (DHR) Kevin Lindsey stressed with Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Superintendent Rich Dahman when Lindsey gave WAPS a choice: face potential charges of discrimination from the DHR or sign a collaboration agreement promising to take steps to improve.
The problem the DHR wants WAPS to improve is a major disparity in the rate of suspensions for students of color versus white students. In the 2017-2018 school year, WAPS suspended students from attending school 234 times, mostly for being disruptive or disorderly. Black students were suspended and sent away eight times more frequently than white students.
Other school districts across Minnesota also had significant racial disparities in student discipline, and last year, the DHR pressured numerous districts into similar collaboration agreements. “I heard from parents and guardians throughout the state that they were concerned about suspension disparity,” Lindsey explained. Particularly, they were concerned that students of color are suspended more often or more harshly for similar types of behavior, he explained.
“What kid is not talking to other kids in school? How do you kick him out for this?” one parent of an African-American WAPS student who was suspended asked. “You kick my baby out, you shorten his education,” the parent added.
The DHR found that special education students were also being suspended at higher rates than other students.
As Dahman told the School Board before it approved the agreement last May, “Winona Area Public Schools is one of 43 districts and charters across the state of Minnesota that have been identified as potentially discriminating against minority and disabled students based on suspension data from the 2015-16 school year.”
“Studies have proven that higher rates of school suspensions and expulsions among students of color and students with disabilities can have lasting negative impacts in their lives and education,” Lindsey stated. “That is why the Minnesota Department of Human Rights takes seriously any allegation or evidence that indicate disciplinary measures are falling disproportionately upon children of color and students with disabilities in our schools. It is our responsibility to fully review such allegations, and work with local school officials to ensure equal treatment under the law for all kids.”
Did bias cause the disparity?
Was WAPS treating students of color differently or were those students acting out more often? WAPS and state officials have not published information comparing why students of different races were suspended. However, Lindsey responded, “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.” Based on complaints from parents, he added, “I felt that if I spent time going through all of the suspensions at their various schools and charters I would find evidence of discrimination.” Lindsey said that rather than investigate every single complaint of discrimination, he felt it was more productive to try to get school districts to make broader systematic changes.
WAPS staff did not suspend students for no reason, Dahman stated. “They suspended them because they believe the actions the student took warranted time away from school,” he said. Asked whether students of color were acting out more often or was WAPS treating them differently, Dahman said that WAPS’ goal is to proactively teach students productive behaviors and try to nip discipline problems in the bud. “I think that other piece of your question,” he added, referring to whether WAPS treats students of color differently, “is addressed by that cultural competency training and making sure we have the training to address those issues in a fair manner when they come up.”
Cultural competency training for teachers and staff is one of the steps WAPS has vowed to take to improve its student discipline disparities. It focuses on being respectful and aware of cultural differences. The trainings sometimes discuss unconscious bias or implicit bias: subconscious feelings, assumptions, or stereotypes that people hold. Psychological studies report that unconscious bias may cause people to view African-American boys as dangerous, for example. Lindsey paraphrased the writer James Baldwin: “One of the issues with racism in America is thinking that it can be all around you and not impact you.”
Does WAPS think the disparity is a problem?
The DHR was clear that the goal of the collaboration agreements is to reduce the racial and ability-based disparities in student discipline. Dahman has offered varying explanations of what WAPS’ goal is.
Asked whether the racial disparities in student discipline is a problem, Dahman responded, “We would like to reduce suspensions for all students.” Dahman also described the goal as reducing suspensions for all students when he presented the collaboration agreement to the School Board last May. “It’s really keyed around reducing out-of-school suspensions … Obviously, we want to do everything we can to reduce the number of students that are being suspended from school.”
The Post asked Dahman a second time whether the racial disparities, in particular, are a problem. He replied, “That’s what we worked on — the number of suspensions — and to make sure that the rate of suspensions are in-line across our student groups.”
At other points, Dahman’s descriptions of the agreement’s goal have been more consistent with the DHR. “It’s a subject that districts across the state are dealing with — student discipline and how to handle that in a way that is equitable and also reduces the need to suspend students,” he stated last May. At an August meeting, he said, “We want to make sure that our discipline procedures are solving discipline problems, that they’re fair and equitable, and that they can be enforced consistently across the district.”
What the agreement requires; what WAPS has done
The collaboration agreement — and the strategic plan WAPS developed to meet the terms of the agreement — require WAPS to form committees to analyze suspension data and make recommendations for how to reduce disparities. It also requires WAPS officials to take part in a state-wide committee with the same goal. Conducting student and parent surveys on student discipline is also part of WAPS’ plan.
WAPS signed the collaboration agreement in May 2018 and provided its first report to the DHR in September 2018. Committees had met, policies had been reviewed, but WAPS was still working on conducting parent and student surveys and making recommendations for change, that report stated. At two meetings last year, the School Board discussed the issue for a total of 29 minutes. Eight months in, WAPS is currently preparing its second report to the DHR. The collaboration agreement expires in September 2021.
In an interview late last month, Dahman said that the local committees have met and that WAPS’ staff have attended the state-wide meetings, but that recommendations for change are still forthcoming. “We have some things we’re working on, but the formal recommendations will be part of the report that goes to the DHR in February,” he stated.
WAPS Director of Learning and Teaching Maurella Cunningham said that the district would be sending surveys to all parents in the coming weeks — first by email, then by mail, if necessary. In previous School Board meetings, WAPS officials indicated that these surveys would cover lots of different topics, not just student discipline and race.
The agreement requires WAPS to continue analyzing its suspension data and report that data to the School Board and to the DHR. That data is supposed to be used as a metric to measure whether WAPS is reducing racial disparities in discipline. However, the data that WAPS is reporting to the School Board and the DHR and that WAPS has identified as its metric of success does not include racial demographics. It is simply the total number of suspensions broken down by the type of misbehavior that formed the basis for the suspension. It does not include any information on whether black students are still being suspended at eight times the rate of white students.
“Does [the agreement] require us to include demographic data with the students that have been disciplined?” School Board member Allison Quam asked Dahman. WAPS and DHR have information on suspensions by race and look at it, but it is not part of the required report, Dahman responded. The Post asked Dahman: How can WAPS tell if its reducing racial disparities when its metrics do not include race? “We look at those [numbers] internally, but that’s not something the DHR had as part of our plan with them,” he responded. The DHR did approve WAPS’ plan for using suspension data — without any measure of racial disparities — as its metric for success.
Alternatives to suspension
Dahman said that WAPS is working on developing alternatives to suspension and strategies for student discipline that are more proactive and supportive and that do not make suspension a first resort. In a press release, DHR officials pointed to a St. Paul school that had success using a restorative justice model to reduce suspensions and improve behavior.
At last August’s School Board meeting, board member Jeanne Nelson asked about in-school suspension (ISS). ISS still takes students out of classrooms, but it keeps them in school and, at least in theory, working on school work. “I’m wondering if we have adequate and appropriate space for in-school suspension even,” Nelson said. In 2014, a Winona Post investigation found that the Winona Middle School (WMS) had cut staff used to monitor the ISS room. Instead, school staff were sending students to a room next door to administrative offices, but with no adult in the room. Since then, budget shortfalls have forced WAPS to make more cuts.
Dahman told Nelson that WAPS now has a system to provide supervised ISS. “Obviously, anytime you’re staffing [ISS], that’s someone who is supervising students who isn’t able to do other duties. So when there are students assigned to ISS, it’s not an ideal situation staffing-wise, but both of our schools [the middle and high schools] have plans for how to handle that.”
A parent of an African-American student who was given out-of-school suspension said that when they asked WAPS officials whether their child could receive in-school suspension instead, school staff responded, “I can’t do that because we don’t have enough staff.”
The school resource officer’s role
One item on the to-do list that WAPS has addressed is revising the job description for the school resource officer. The resource officer is a Winona Police Department officer whom WAPS pays to be on-duty full time at local schools — mostly the Winona Senior High School. The new job description clarifies that the resource officer should not get involved in student discipline. It is important to keep law enforcement and school discipline separate, Dahman said. The resource officer’s job is to ensure safety and security, he stated. “The principal should be the person dealing with discipline, not the school resource officer … Law enforcement shouldn’t be part of that interaction. It’s a school policy. If a student breaks a school policy, school teachers and staff handle that policy,” he added.
Will disparities improve?
Student discipline data from the 2018-2019 school year will not be available from the Minnesota Department of Education until late this year. However, WAPS shared its statistics for this school year to date. According to that data, the suspension rate for all students has decreased sharply, falling from 7.5 suspensions for every 100 students to 3.9 suspensions.
There is still a significant racial disparity, with black students being suspended more than six times as often as white students, but the disparity shrank from a nearly 750-percent difference in 2017-2018 to a 525-percent difference so far this school year.
With the inauguration of Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, former DHR Commissioner Lindsey was replaced by Commissioner Rebecca Lucero last week, and the DHR was not immediately available for comment on whether WAPS’ progress on the collaboration agreement has been satisfactory.
Asked last year whether he believed the collaboration agreement would in fact improve racial disparities in student discipline, Lindsey said, “While this sets forth motion to address and reduce suspension disparities, it should not be taken as the last word.” Asked whether he had faith in WAPS, he responded, “I do. I think the fact that they were one of the first organizations, one of the first school districts, to sign off on the agreement — I think that does say something about their commitment.” He added, “It takes a certain amount of leadership to [acknowledge the problem] in the public space and the public domain, and the fact that they’re willing to do that does speak volumes of them. Will it be easy? Will it all happen in the next six months? No.”
According to WAPS staff, a survey that includes questions about student discipline will soon be sent to all parents in the district, and the School Board will receive an updated report on the collaboration agreement next month.
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Nathaniel Nelson and Sarah Squires contributed to this report.