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Human Rights Department analyzes discipline disparities at MN schools

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Lockers await a new school year.
Lockers at a Minnesota high school on the first day of school on September 2, 2015.
Caroline Yang for MPR News 2015

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights has reached an agreement with most of the 43 school districts and charter schools flagged for discipline disparities.

A recent analysis by the department found that students of color make up 31 percent of the population, yet those students received 66 percent of all suspensions and expulsions in the last five years.

Kevin Lindsey, the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, told MPR News on Friday that the agreement will more clearly outline steps schools across the state can take to use suspension and expulsion as a last resort.

"This is an issue which has longterm ramifications if we do not solve it in Minnesota," Lindsey said. "We are becoming racially and ethnically more diverse."

Lindsey said the agreements also address students with disabilities. He said 14 percent of students in Minnesota are students with disabilities.

Lindsey also noted the suspensions and expulsions the department examined were related to disruptive behavior, not safety issues such as fighting, weapons or drugs. 

Some students were getting suspended for missing class which is an unproductive move, according to Lindsey.

"When we are talking about students who are missing class, all educators agree on this point; students can't learn if they're not in class," he said.

Lindsey said school suspensions account for 20 percent of the difference in achievement between African-American and white students. 

According to the Department of Human Rights, all public schools and charters in Minnesota are required to annually report information about their suspension and expulsion decisions to the Department of Education, which maintains the information in its Discipline Incident Reporting System (DIRS). 

The department, in turn, reviewed five years of data. 

The 2015-2016 school year reveals trends in the data that is representative of the last five years:

• American-Indian students were ten times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white peers.
• African-American students were eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white peers.
• Students of color were twice as likely to be suspended or expelled than white peers.
• Students with disabilities were twice as likely to be suspended or expelled as their peers without a disability.

The Department of Human Rights reports high school graduation rate for students of color has increased by 11.1 percentage points since 2012, reducing the gap between white students and students of color by nearly 30 percent. 

Despite this improvement, significant gaps in educational opportunity and achievement persist, Lindsey said. Resolving student discipline disparities could help to further reduce Minnesota's achievement gaps.