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Minneapolis Will Review Suspension of Every Minority Student

UPDATED

Beginning this week, every suspension of a minority student in the Minneapolis school district will be reviewed by the superintendent's leadership team.

The new policy announced late last week and presented to the school board on Monday is part of Superintendent Bernadeia H. Johnson's focus on reducing the disparity in suspensions between minority students and their white peers and pushing forward with the district's goal to close the achievement gap by 2020.  

It also comes as the district agreed to a settlement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which had been probing whether the district was discriminating against black students by disciplining them "more frequently and more harshly" than white students. 

The Office for Civil Rights has focused heavily in recent months on discipline policies, including out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions, their applications and their impacts on minority students. In January, the Education Department and the Justice Department released guidance for school districts on how to reduce disproportionality in disciplinary policies.

The agreement calls for strict reporting requirements and a robust review of the district's policies, along with a host of changes—some of which the district has already implemented. It will require more specificity in the definitions of misconduct, better data collection systems, staff training and the appointment of a district supervisor to oversee school discipline. 

Minneapolis is one of the 62 big-city school districts that have signed on the Council of the Great City Schools pledge to focus on improving outcomes for young men of color. Reducing disproportionality in suspensions and expulsions is one of the key areas that the signatory districts have promised to address. 

In Minneapolis, the leadership team review is meant to help district officials better understand the circumstances behind suspensions and provide students and their families with additional support if necessary, according to the district. Depending on the circumstances, the panel will have the power to overturn a suspension, a district spokesman said.

"My desire is to be more deeply involved and understand the circumstances around our suspensions so that we can provide the appropriate support our principals, teachers, students and families need," Johnson said in a statement last week announcing the policy. "This team will bring in resources for the student, family and school as needed."

The district plans to eliminate the non-violent suspension gap completely by 2018, with specific targets for improvement along the way. 

Earlier this school year, the district instituted a moratorium on suspensions for nonviolent behavior in pre-K through first grade, an action that Johnson said had positive effects district-wide. 

"Suspensions, removals and referrals for all student groups are down by almost half throughout the school district," she said. "We still have a lot of work to do.  African American students are still suspended at a rate 10 times that of their white peers. There are 10 black students suspended for every white student suspended."

The district said the review of the suspension policy is one of many steps it has taken to focus on improving outcomes for students of color.

Others include: 

  • A new behavior standards policy;
  • Creation of the Office of Black Male Student Achievement; 
  • Adoption of an equity policy; 
  • And the creation of winter and spring break academies to provide additional academic support for students. 

As part of the agreement with the Department of Education, the district must take concrete and specific actions to address the disparity in suspensions. 

It will have to report to the department progress it has made in reducing suspensions for students of color, increasing parent and student engagement, and reviewing its staffing as it relates to guidance counselors, social workers and mental health professionals.

The district has to examine the root cause of the discipline disparity; conduct an annual discipline forum in all schools; train staff and teachers who make discipline referrals; and improve data collection on referrals, discipline sanctions, and administrative transfers in all schools. 

The district also plans to reduce the number of school resource officers in the schools, the  Minneapolis Star Tribune reported. All 16 full-time and nine part-time officers are police officers, the paper said. The district plans to eliminate the part-time officers by next year and reduce the number of full-time ones to seven in the next four years. 

A copy of the agreement can be found here.

[UPDATE: (Nov. 13): The suspension proposal is receiving pushback in some circles, mainly conservative ones, with opponents arguing that the policy is illegal and discriminates against students in the district who are not minorities and will not benefit from a special review.

Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, wrote in the National Review Online that the proposal was "blatantly illegal" and would most likely hurt minority students. He said it was a predictable result of the discipline guidelines issued earlier this year.

Tom Corbett, a lawyer, wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that while he lauded Johnson's desire to address the racial discrimination related to suspensions, the method chosen was likely unconstitutional.

"When a government entity, such as a school district, develops a policy that discriminates between racial groups, a court will strike down that policy as unconstitutional unless it is justified by a compelling government interest, is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest and is the least restrictive means of achieving that interest. This is called the strict scrutiny test. It is the most stringent standard that courts apply, and it applies regardless of whether the racial discrimination in question is reverse racial discrimination.

The new policy in the Minneapolis public school system expressly discriminates between racial groups by providing additional review of proposed suspensions of black, Hispanic and American Indian students for nonviolent behaviors.

Even if we assume that the new policy furthers a compelling government interest, the policy is neither narrowly tailored nor is it the least restrictive means available.

Providing review of all suspensions for racial bias or training teachers on unconscious bias are two examples of other ways to address the problem without the school district resorting to institutionalizing reverse racial discrimination." ]

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