The not-so-hidden racism of school discipline in Minneapolis and St. Paul

Total number of disciplinary incidents, including suspensions and expulsions, reported by Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts over the past five years

Total number of disciplinary incidents, including suspensions and expulsions, reported by Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts over the past five years

Last week’s news included the horrific video of a police officer throwing a 16-year-old girl across the school room — apparently because she only put away her cell phone, but refused to give it to her teacher. Bad as it is, the video shows only the tip of the iceberg of racially disparate school discipline, which persists across the country and here in the Twin Cities as well.

Vox compiled a series of seven charts showing racism in school discipline, using national statistics. I wondered how Minneapolis and St. Paul would compare, so I went to the Minnesota Department of Education website to find the numbers.

Vox reports that black students are suspended or expelled at higher rates throughout their school years, across the nation. That’s also true in Minneapolis and St. Paul. African American students are disciplined at a far higher rate than any other race or ethnicity reported. Here are the breakdowns for Minneapolis and St. Paul:

Mpls discipline disparities

St. Paul discipline disparities

The Minnesota Department of Education figures show the total number of “disciplinary incidents” by race and ethnicity. These include suspensions, expulsions and other reported incidents.

In Minneapolis, black students make up 37 percent of the student population, but 75 percent of the disciplinary incidents. In St. Paul, black students make up 30 percent of the student population, but 73 percent of the disciplinary incidents. In Minneapolis, Native American students make up 4 percent of the student population, and 8 percent of the disciplinary incidents.

The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights reported last year on racial and other disparities in school discipline. They found disproportionately high suspension/expulsion rates for students of color, disproportionate discipline for girls of color, disproportionate suspension of students with disabilities, and disproportionate arrests and referrals to law enforcement by race and disability status.

Racial disparities in discipline begin early and continue throughout school years. The disparities are not explained by differences in behavior. Vox explains:

“A common reaction to the discipline disparities is to suggest that something other than race is at work — that they’re a function of poverty, or that black students are simply more likely to misbehave. But analyses of the data have found that isn’t true. Black students and white students are sent to the principal’s office at similar rates; states report they commit more serious offenses, such as carrying weapons or drugs at school, at similar rates; and when surveyed about their own behavior, they report similar patterns. Even in cases in which black students do disproportionately act out — a 2008 analysis found twice as many black boys as white boys reported bringing a gun to school — they’re more likely to be punished than white students who committed the same infraction.”

Part of the problem is in the presence of police in the schools as School Resource Officers. Writing in the Hechinger Report, Beth Hawkins said that “even controlling for socioeconomic status, students at schools where there is an SRO are at least five times more likely than their peers to be arrested and sent into the juvenile justice system by the officers.”

Overuse of punishment to respond to discipline problems also may be correlated to the lack of counseling resources. Minnesota has one counselor for every 792 students, the third-worst ratio in the entire country.

Failure to educate students also contributes to racial disparities in discipline. Dropout Nation blogger Rishawn Biddle, writing about Minneapolis racial disparities in discipline last year, identified both a cause and a solution:

“[The] district is dealing miserably with the underlying illiteracy that is the key culprit for student misbehavior. …  This means intensive reading remediation, especially in the early grades when discipline issues can be headed off … Systemic reform, in short, is key to reducing overuse of suspensions for the long haul.”

In a press release from ISAIAH last year, Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds said the statistics on racially disparate suspensions “should break our hearts, and compel us all – especially the faith community – to act in a transformative way.” It’s time, and long past time, to act.

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Filed under education, race

2 responses to “The not-so-hidden racism of school discipline in Minneapolis and St. Paul

  1. RPS

    Of course, St. Paul Public Schools has attempted to address this issue. And the district’s thoughtful changes have been the fodder to fuel the “Caucus for Change” backlash in St. Paul.

    We’re at risk of losing the sole African-American on the board the last eight years, largely because of his support of racial equity policies designed to tackle the very issues you outline here. And yet you don’t support him. I don’t think you can have this one both ways.

    Some admire the union/Caucus for Change narrative – they’ve had a lot of time and money to polish it. The Teachers’ union hardly speaks for all teachers; many actively disagree with their policies. In reality, a considerable part of that movement has been fueled by folks who seem inclined to dismantle or water down some of the really thoughtful racial equity policies St. Paul has implemented in recent years – be it approaches to discipline, or following federal law around inclusion of special education students as well as ELL students.

    I’m a former DFL Chair. I was at the City DFL Convention – about 80 percent white, endorsing school board members for a district that’s 22 percent white. The union hired two paid organizers in the months leading into the convention to turn out parent and teacher supporters at the convention. They spent two years building the parent movement through a carefully-scripted engagement. The convention was rigged from day one. School board members paid $10,000 a year as a second job can’t match the over $100.000 the Teachers Federation has put into this race. Unless we are blindly supportive of unions, there were some serious ethical questions raised by what played out. And that convention threw out the Board Chair, Vice Chair, and Treasurer (a 16-year veteran).

    Race lingered just beneath the surface of much of what transpired, and what I and other senior DFL leaders saw was ugly. Several candidates drew energy from that ugliness at the convention. Race – and demographic the changes that have taken in St. Paul schools over the last generation – continue to linger just beneath discussions about “behavior issues” just in advance of the election. Lately, the union’s political director continues to be quoted in articles underscoring behavior issues. He’s been clear that he’d turn back many of the equity policies. Those discussions usually end, subtly or not, with calls to elect the union-backed candidates to the school board.

    This is precisely the reason why as a former DFL Senate District and Ward Chair, I’m supporting Keith Hardy this election.

    Thank you for putting this issue in the spotlight. I guess I’m positively perplexed that you seem blind to the connection between this issue and the union-backed candidates, who you just embraced in a previous post. Respectfully, you can’t have it both ways. Graduation rates in St. Paul have increased five years running, and now exceed state averages overall, and for most key demographic groups. Good leadership on a board involves dialogue between divergent perspectives. If you care at all about equity, you’re dismissing the single person who has experience and staked his school board career on just that issue.


  2. Mary Turck

    The district racial equity policies “designed to tackle the problem” clearly are not working. Racial disparities in discipline continue, with black students making up 30 percent of the district’s students, and cited in 73 percent of disciplinary incidents.

    High graduation rates are laudable, but they do not tell the whole story. I started to write a post a couple of months ago, focusing on those high graduation rates. But then I looked at more of the data. St. Paul’s high graduation rate of 76 percent is admirable, as is the 69 percent graduation rate for black students. But the number of 10th grade St. Paul students at grade-level proficiency in reading is only 32 percent, andthe number of 11th grade students proficient in math proficiency is only 30 percent.

    Your charge that it’s racist to oppose current black board member Keith Hardy while supporting black candidate Zuki Ellis seems a bit strained.
    I like Keith Hardy. I think he is a committed and dedicated board member, and I respect the hard work he has done — but the district administration has failed in many ways, and the current board has not sufficiently challenged those failures.


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