Study finds discipline disparities for students of color

Students of color and those with disabilities in Minnesota classrooms face a disproportionate amount of expulsions and suspensions, according to a recent state study. 

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights found that while students of color comprise 31 percent of Minnesota’s student population, they receive 66 percent of all suspensions and expulsions.

The report found Native American students were 10 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white peers. For African-American students, the rate was eight times more likely. The report also found students with disabilities were twice as likely to be suspended or expelled as their peers without a disability.

Educators said the study highlights the need for change.

“Pushing students out is not the answer,” said Abbie Finger, an educator in Minneapolis Public Schools. “I think the more we keep students in classrooms, the better outcomes they have. They're there, they're being supported by their classmates, by their teachers, by their schools.”

Finger attended the “I Teach Love” Annual Summit on Saturday in St. Paul, hosted by Educators for Excellence.  The group encourage teachers to push for changes that would improve student learning and create solutions to challenges. The discipline disparities were a part of the discussion.

The group advocates a move away from zero-tolerance discipline and a move toward restorative practices. That educational system relies less on detentions and suspension and more on counseling and collaborative solutions.

Some critics call the approach soft on discipline.

“To that point, I would say that's the beauty of restorative practices. Restorative practice is not the absence of accountability, it actually builds up accountability because it teaches that empathy and models for the adults and the student,” said Stephen Shepherd with the Minneapolis Public Schools. 

But a shift in thinking doesn't come easy, or without costs, educators say.

“It's really hard as a single classroom teacher to be able to implement all of those different pieces by oneself, whereas if a school does it, a district does it, there's a community of effort to support kids,” Finger said.

Experts said discipline disparities can also be caused by issues of implicit bias or lack of training.

The Department of Human Rights reached out to 44 districts, in an effort to help develop corrective action strategies. If the department and districts can't reach an agreement, state officials may file administrative charges.