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State still negotiating with districts over disparities in student discipline

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Students head to class on the first day of school.
Students head to class on the first day of school at Richfield High School on September 2, 2015 in Richfield, Minn.
Caroline Yang for MPR News 2015

Updated: Wednesday, Aug. 29 | Posted: Tuesday, Aug. 28

It's back to school season in Minnesota. But a handful of school districts and charter schools are starting the school year still negotiating with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to address racial disparities in student discipline.

The human rights department identified the schools and dozens of others after an investigation into suspension and expulsion rates for students of color and students with disabilities.  

What is the human rights department asking for and why?

Last fall, the state human rights department met with 43 Minnesota school districts and charter schools after reviewing five years of suspensions and expulsions reported to the state and found that their rates are equal to or higher than the national average. 

Specifically, the department found that students of color in Minnesota comprise 31 percent of the population, but receive 66 percent of all suspensions and expulsions. Students with disabilities comprise 14 percent of the population, but get 43 percent of all suspensions and expulsions.

The data the human rights department examined was limited to suspensions and expulsions related to disruptive behavior, not issues like fighting, weapons or drugs. 

Last fall, the human rights department told these 43 districts to come up with a plan to address these disparities or face the department in court.

How many schools have come to an agreement with the human rights department?

As of this week, 36 of those districts and charter schools have reached an agreement with the department. Six have a tentative agreement with the department or are negotiating details of an  agreement. And one is not seeking an agreement at all. 

Which district has no plans for an agreement?

The Walker-Hackensack-Akeley School District. The human rights department is currently investigating whether there's probable cause that the district violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

In an email statement, Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said the superintendent there "does not believe that suspensions disparities exist within his school district."

District Superintendent Eric Pingrey said his district is waiting for Lindsey to specify exactly what the problem is. 

"We're working diligently to make sure that all kids are taken care of," he said. "We take great pride in that."

Pingrey added that even prior to the department's investigation, the district had already taken steps to make sure all kids were getting a good education, including hiring a new special education coordinator. 

What about districts and charter schools that are close to an agreement?

There isn't much information available, because those agreements and plans have not been made public yet.

But as of today, there are six outstanding. The human rights department recently said it expected those agreements to be done by the start of the school year, but, so far they're still pending.

The Rochester Public School District started school this week, and its board discussed the plan on August 21. Human Rights Commissioner Lindsey said earlier this month that his department was in the process of providing feedback regarding efforts to include what he called "meaningful" civic engagement on the issue, and how to measure the effectiveness of the plan.

A spokesperson for the school district said that district officials continue to work with the human rights department.

In July, the district issued a statement saying that it had already taken steps to address these disparities and that suspension rates have been down recently. 

What strategies are other school districts adopting to manage discipline disparities?

Here's just one example of many:

The Richfield Public School District has pledged to put its staff through "anti-bias training," create an alternative suspension program for secondary school students facing suspension and come up with a plan to hire more staff who reflect the student population, among other initiatives.

All the agreements stipulate that the human rights commissioner will not file administrative charges against these schools as they implement their plans. And they include a timeline for reporting back to the human rights department on their progress.

Correction (Aug. 29. 2018): A previous version of the story provided an inaccurate reason for the delay for the agreement with Rochester Public School district.