Duluth school district to work with Human Rights department

By Adelle Whitefoot

The Duluth School Board is expected to approve an agreement Tuesday with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to decrease disparities in suspensions.

In March, the department announced it was working with 43 school districts and charter schools to develop corrective action plans. The department said the disparities are a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act because they “deny students of color and students with disabilities educational access and negatively impact academic achievement.”

The department found students of color make up 31 percent of the student population statewide but received 66 percent of suspensions and expulsions over a five-year period. While 14 percent of students statewide have disabilities, they received 43 percent of such disciplinary actions.

Between 2008 and 2014 — the years the News Tribune analyzed such data — special education students in Duluth schools made up about 15 percent of enrollment, but those students accounted for 46 percent of suspensions. Black males represented 5 percent of enrollment but accounted for 20 percent of suspensions during that time. Black students in total made up less than 10 percent of enrollment but accounted for 31 percent of days lost to suspension.

The agreement with the Human Rights Department lays out the terms of working together toward less disparate outcomes and behavioral outcomes in the district’s out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, superintendent Bill Gronseth said.

“Expulsions are not something that we do very often and when we do they are for pretty extreme behaviors,” Gronseth said. “In our case, this is more about out-of-school and in-school suspensions, specifically looking at students that receive special education services and students of color compared to the rates of students who do not receive those services and our white students.”

As part of the agreement with the department, the district had to come up with a plan to work toward lessening these disparities. According to that plan, in the school years 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, special education student suspensions have increased and are disproportionate compared to the rest of the population. It also states in those years that though black students make up only 6 percent of the population district-wide, they received 28 percent of suspensions, and those who were of two or more races accounted for 9 percent of the population but received 21 percent of suspensions. The data is based on days of suspensions.

In the 2016-17 school year, there were 760 suspensions and/or expulsions district-wide and 299 of those were for disruptive or disorderly behavior. The department reported more than one-third of suspensions and expulsions are in this category.

“Examples of such behavior by students include rolling eyes, walking away from school personnel before a conversation is over, talking back to school personnel, making inappropriate remarks or sounds, or swearing,” the department said in a press release. “It is for behavior incidents like these that (the department) and these districts and charter schools are collaborating to find teachable moments and reduce their reliance on suspension as a consequence to these behaviors.”

As part of the agreement, the district has staff members serving on the department’s diversion committee, which is made up of officials from districts all over the state, and one of the goals of the committee is to reduce suspensions by finding alternatives. Gronseth said that finding alternatives to suspensions has been a personal focus area for him.

“When kids aren’t in school, they aren’t learning and what we know is that suspension itself doesn’t change behaviors, so I really want to focus on helping the students to find alternative behaviors and to decrease our overall number,” he said.

“So having the support of the Minnesota Department of Education and the Human Rights Department is giving us an opportunity to work with school districts all across the state and come together to share our best strategies and share our best practices and to make a difference across the state on this.”

Another aspect of the agreement with the department is to involve parents and the community in the discussion about strategies to lessen the disparities. The district currently has a district leadership committee who have and will continue to work on the plan to lessen disparities in suspensions and expulsions, but no community members are currently on the committee.

The plan going forward, according to Gronseth, is to expand that committee to include community members as an addition to the committee when appropriate.

“So the district level team is going to be looking at specific data and that’s protected data, so we can’t just share that with parents and people from the community because it’s private data,” he said. “When it comes to talking about strategies and aggregated data where kids can’t be identified, that’s the data where we would work with (the community and parents) on that expanded committee.”

Gronseth said the district is also looking at expanding each school’s continuous improvement team to include parents and community members as well.

“The continuous improvement teams do comprehensive need assessments and in that, they are involving community members through surveys and other data already,” he said. “We are hoping to expand their continuous improvement teams, but that is an area that we still need to do some work on.”

As of the end of June, 20 of the 43 school districts and charter schools have entered into a similar agreement with the department that the Duluth School Board is expected to approve Tuesday. Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said in a news release that he commends the districts and charter schools who have entered into an agreement “for their willingness to tackle this issue head-on.”

“These leaders should be commended for working to reduce suspension disparities for students with disabilities and students of color while maintaining safe environments for all,” Lindsey said. “These efforts will help build a stronger Minnesota that is ready to embrace the dramatic demographic changes in our near future as our population ages and becomes more diverse.”