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Minority students in Bemidji, statewide suspended and expelled more than white students

BEMIDJI—Bemidji Area Schools staff suspend and expel American Indian students at a higher rate than their white counterparts—but they aren't the only ones.

Statewide, American Indian, black, and multiracial students are suspended more frequently than their proportion of the population would suggest, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Education.

That data, and a similar disparity between special and general education students, has prompted the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to step in, according to documents obtained by Forum News Service and interviews with state and local education administrators. It also seemingly comes as no surprise to American Indian educators.

"The reality is the Native community knows that this is sort of happening already," said John Gonzalez, a Bemidji Area Schools board member, psychology professor at Bemidji State University and member of the White Earth Anishinaabe Nation.

"Every district recognizes that, every district pays attention to that," said Superintendent Rochelle Johnson, who heads Cass Lake-Bena Schools and was born in Red Lake. Her school district is one of dozens the human rights department is scrutinizing. "It's something that people look at, and they should look at it."

Last school year, Minnesota educators recorded 46,311 expulsions, exclusions, or out-of-school suspensions lasting one day or longer, according to data from the Department of Education. A total of 17,969 of those—about 38 percent—were levied against black students, who only made up about 10 percent of the statewide student body that year. Likewise, American Indian students comprised 1.6 percent of all Minnesota K-12 students but 6.2 percent of all suspensions and expulsions.

And at Bemidji Area Schools, about 40 percent of expulsions and suspensions were against American Indian students, who comprise about 16 percent of the district's student body.

Last fall, staff at the Minnesota Department of Human Rights told Bemidji Area Schools leaders that they and 43 other school districts and charter schools were being audited about student suspensions and expulsions, according to documents.

Human Rights Department staff indicated that 54 percent of suspensions or expulsions were based on subjective reasons and said they were concerned that police officers are overly involved in student discipline.

In a late-October conference call between department and district staff, Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Jim Hess said that the district's D.A.R.E. and school resource officers were of great help and didn't make discipline decisions unless a law was broken. He also told department staffers about a bevy of diversity- and equity-minded efforts at the district, including a new American Indian culture and curriculum specialist position created last spring.

The district, Hess told the Pioneer on Friday, has a code of conduct that aims to de-personalize consequences for students and avoid punishments based on an administrator's mood that day. It spells out punishments for assaults, bullying, and other transgressions based on the offending student's grade and the number of times they've committed that specific offense.

Vandalism, for instance, warrants a parent conference for a first-time offender in grades K-3, and an escalating series of suspensions for every case after that. Older students face harsher prescribed punishments sooner.

The district also has several alternative programs for students who've already been disciplined, who have chemical dependency issues, or who've simply bombed a class or two and need to make up credits.

Bemidji Area Schools elementary teachers have all been trained in "responsive classroom" techniques, Hess said, and the district plans to expand it to middle-school grades. That approach stresses active and interactive lessons, student choices, and starting each class day with a positive tone. Hess elementary-level suspensions went down 50 percent after the district implemented it, and state data appears to back up his claim: K-5 expulsions and suspensions went from 253 in 2015-16 to 136 last year. (The district recorded 195 in 2014-15 and 165 the year before that.)

Hess said he thinks his administrators are all exceptional educators and that rank-and-file teachers make well-informed decisions.

"When a student is given a consequence that comes from the code, I think it's deserving," he said. "We don't get up in the morning and say, 'Oh, who can we lower the hammer on today?"

Information is scarce

Ultimately, Human Rights Department Commissioner Kevin Lindsey and two other staffers gave district leaders a choice, according to documents: enter a "diversion committee" to help reduce suspensions and expulsions or face a full-scale investigation into district practices.

District leaders chose the first option, according to those documents. That seemingly puts Bemidji Area Schools in the "mediation" portion of the human rights' department's complaint process, but details about what's happened afterward are difficult to come by.

Minnesota law classifies swathes of human rights investigatory data as nonpublic, so department staff would only speak to Forum News Service about their work in general terms. District administrators denied a request for correspondences between the district and the department.

One of the Department of Human Rights staffers who spoke with Bemidji Area Schools leaders last fall is Beth Commers. She was hired 15 months ago to lead a statewide effort to reduce suspensions and expulsions in Minnesota public and charter schools, according to her LinkedIn profile. Her official duties include working on special projects, coordinating department meetings and acting as a liaison between the department and its stakeholders. Human Rights Department workers reportedly asked staff at the state Department of Education for per-district data on suspensions and expulsions last spring.

Correspondences between Hess and school board members indicate Bemidji Area Schools is one of 34 school districts and nine charter schools the Department of Human Rights is auditing for disproportionate discipline. Representatives from about that many districts met at the education department's Roseville headquarters on Jan. 30, staff there said. The meeting aimed to help district staff review available data, identify local needs and brainstorm strategies for support, align their plans to reduce disproportionality with state requirements, and learn what the department can do to help, according to an agenda supplied to the Pioneer.

Josh Collins, an education department spokesperson, said staff there frequently conduct that kind of training but the department invited a specific set of districts to the Jan. 30 meeting.

At the human rights department's request, staff at the department of education declined to produce a list of districts that that were invited to the meeting.

Why not suspension?

Beyond investigating claims of discrimination, the Department of Human Rights hosts an annual symposium; the 2017 meeting was Dec. 12-13 in St Paul.

That symposium's keynote speaker was Jane Wettach, a clinical professor of law at Duke University, who also directs the school's Children's Law Clinic. Wettach co-authored a report for the law clinic called "Instead of Suspension: Alternative Strategies for Effective School Discipline," which Wettach said drew the attention of the human rights department.

Across the country, Wettach said in an interview, students of color and special education students are suspended at higher rates than would be expected by their proportion of the student population. Black students, she said, are generally suspended three to four times more than their share of the student body would suggest.

Kicking students out of class doesn't teach them to adjust their behavior to societal norms, she said, and it can teach students that they're unwanted or not worth being in a school in the first place.

Other data, Wettach said, shows that students who are suspended are more likely to drop out of school or end up in the juvenile or criminal justice system. If they're not occupied by school or an alternative program, she said, they're at a higher risk of getting involved in anti-social activities. Suspensions can also foster negative relationships with adults at a school, and students with positive relationships are more likely to be engaged in an activity.

Alternatives

Wettach said one alternative to suspensions is called Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports. It's used in several districts across Minnesota, including Bemidji Area Schools.

"PBIS" works to reinforce good behavior—the point is to help an offending student take personal responsibility for their actions and make things right, which might mean mediated conversations where the student tries to take on the perspective of a victim and, perhaps, apologize, Wettach explained.

Bemidji Area Schools teachers can learn and use PBIS techniques at their own discretion, Hess said. It is not implemented districtwide. Nearby Cass Lake-Bena Schools use it universally, Superintendent Johnson said.

Hess said there's always room for improvement, discipline-wise, in his school district.

"I hope that we can learn better ways because, as an organization, if we think we know it all, believe me, we're making a big mistake," he said. "We have to assume that there are infinite ways to improve what we do, and we can't be tied or bound to the way it's always been. We've got to look for more effective ways to reach kids."

Anton Treuer, a noted American Indian academic and professor of Ojibwe at BSU, has spoken several times with district leaders. He said Hess is working hard to develop a "ground game" for racial equity at the school district.

"I don't think there's mean people who are out to get the Indian kids or something, necessarily," Treuer said. "The disparities are driven by a number of things and interrupting it is not as simple as telling everyone, 'Be nice.'"

Human beings tend to exclude people who seem too different, Treuer said, and the district could overhaul hiring practices to obscure a job applicant's race. Or, perhaps, new hires could get a crash course in the district's racial disparities, or staff could be trained to recognize and interrupt their own implicit biases.

Why?

So why might students of color be disciplined more often in the first place?

In 2016, researchers at the Yale Child Study Center asked teachers to watch a video of preschoolers and spot "challenging" behaviors. The researchers then surreptitiously tracked the subjects' eye movements and found that, when expecting those behaviors, the teachers scrutinized black children, particularly black boys, more often than white ones.

When she spoke at the Minnesota Department of Human Rights' symposium late last year, Wettach said she told attendees about a program called My Teaching Partner, a program developed by the University of Virginia that aims to help teachers recognize their implicit biases via extended mentoring and observation.

"You find things when you're looking for them," Wettach said. "Most everybody has implicit bias, but that doesn't mean they act in a way that's prejudicial. If they recognize it, they're more likely to stop themselves from doing it."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

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