Why Are Black Students Punished So Often? Minnesota Confronts a National Quandary

Erica L. Greenmarch, New York Times March 18, 2018

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{snip} The Minneapolis school district suspends an inordinate number of black students compared with white ones, and it is struggling to figure out why. Last year, districtwide, black students were 41 percent of the overall student population, but made up 76 percent of the suspensions.

Numbers like that prompted the Obama administration in 2014 to draft tough new policies to try to address racial disparities in school discipline across the country. Now, the Trump administration is trying to reverse those policies — in part, administration officials say, as a response to school shootings like the massacre last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

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A retired Minnesota teacher set off a conservative media blitz by linking the Obama-era guidance to frustrations that teachers have with violent students, raising the issue high enough for the White House to latch on after the Parkland massacre. The coverage prompted Republicans to speculate about whether relaxed disciplinary policies had allowed the violent track record of Nikolas Cruz, who has been charged in the shooting, to evade law enforcement.

Debbie York, the teacher who raised the issue in a Breitbart News article, was forced to retire after a first grader in her suburban Minnesota school pushed her, injuring her back and neck. The school district said she had violated privacy laws by speaking out about the incident.

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Civil rights groups and congressional Democrats are standing by the guidance and pointing to evidence that suspensions are helping to drive the achievement gap between white and minority students. Suspensions and expulsions are also linked to the disproportionate numbers of minority students in the criminal justice system.

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But in Minneapolis, as in districts across the nation, discipline policies are more than a political flash point. They are a daily struggle to balance safety and statistics, and the uncomfortable truths about how race may be clouding educators’ perception of both.

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While critics of the Obama-era discipline changes argue that disparities cannot be explained away by racism, education leaders here say it is the natural place to start.

Bernadeia Johnson, a former Minneapolis schools superintendent, launched her own review of discipline referrals for kindergarten boys after the federal government began investigating her district. The review was revealing, she said. The descriptions of white children by teachers included “gifted but can’t use his words” and “high strung,” with their actions excused because they “had a hard day.”

Black children, she said, were “destructive” and “violent,” and “cannot be managed.”

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Nationally, black students are suspended three times as often as their white peers; in Minnesota, it is eight times as often. To explain this trend, officials here point to the rapid increase in the state’s minority population in the last decade, and the fact that the state has the largest poverty gap between blacks and whites in the nation.

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But some teachers say that the approach has undermined their profession and set students up for failure. One case that has received particular attention is a student’s violent assault in 2016 of his teacher, John Ekblad. Last year, Mr. Ekblad was part of a Minnesota contingent of teachers who met with Trump administration officials to discuss Obama-era disciplinary policies.

Simon Whitehead, a former physical education teacher at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, said he had watched the district’s discipline policy changes play out in his classes. Name-calling escalated to shoving, and then physical assaults. Profanity was redefined as “cultural dialect,” he said.

{snip} The root of those changes was in the district’s 2014 settlement agreement with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which had conducted a yearlong investigation into its discipline practices.

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The policy changes prompted a backlash both locally and nationally. In a letter, Peter Kirsanow, a Republican commissioner on the United States Commission on Civil Rights, called the move “legally and constitutionally suspect.” He said her goal of closing the discipline gap between black and white students by 2018 was “introducing a racial quota system for school discipline.”

One month after the changes were announced, Ms. Johnson resigned.

“When people have kids around them that don’t look like them, they want them controlled,” she said.

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But, in the district as a whole, after four years, and three superintendents, it has made meager progress. Suspensions have fallen, but racial disparities persist. Black students remain three times as likely to be suspended.

Justice Page is one of the schools contributing to that gap, and Ms. Rathke and her team are working to change course.

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