Schools seek remedies to racial suspension gap





By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


Black students nationwide are suspended at least twice more frequently than any other student group and up to three times more often in many Twin Cities metro area urban and suburban school districts. However, school officials say that they are working on reducing Black suspension rates using a variety of strategies.

“I cannot speak for all districts, but I can tell you that we have worked extremely hard in Anoka-Hennepin to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of all students of color,” stated Anoka-Hennepin spokesperson Mary Olson. The district had a nearly 33 percent Black suspension rate in 2011-12 while only 10 percent of its overall student population is Black.

Anoka-Hennepin has been using cultural competency and culturally responsive teaching strategies by the Seattle-based Gary Howard Equity Institute for nearly four years, added Olson. In an email response, Gary Howard last week told the MSR, “There has been a sustained effort to reduce the number and rate of Black students’ discipline suspensions… My work has been just one part of their district-wide effort in this area. This effort is still very much a work in progress.”

Although the “race-based discipline gap” continues in many U.S. school districts, Howard believes Anoka-Hennepin is showing positive results. “The number of suspensions of Black students has been reduced by 30 percent in the current school year as compared to the previous year,” he said. “The gap remains, but the trend line is moving in the right direction.”

According to Olson, “total days of absence [due to suspensions]” have decreased over two years — 107 for Blacks during the first two tri-semesters this school year compared to 152 in 2011-12. “We are seeing great success, especially with Black students,” she stated.

Hopkins School District officials last week announced that the February suspensions of two Black Hopkins High School students after an altercation with a school administrator had been overturned. The students in question were trying to retrieve posters they had created to protest an earlier incident where White students were mocking Blacks. Petty misdemeanor citations given to the two students by Minnetonka police also were dropped.

A “restorative justice process” involving the two Black students, Superintendent John Schultz, Hopkins’ school principal and associate principal and the students’ attorney, Nekima Levy-Pounds, subsequently took place.

“The process was a step in the right direction to promote healing and understanding,” according to a statement released jointly by Schultz and Levy-Pounds. “During the restorative justice process, everyone was able to voice their concerns about the treatment of students of color at Hopkins High School… The students involved in the process were able to make clear that they did not intentionally disrespect the school staff, but were making a conscious effort to stand up for what they believed was right.”

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) also uses the restorative process in conjunction with Legal Rights Services of Minneapolis. The district and the legal organization work with suspended students and their families to avoid expulsion, said MPS teacher Chul Schwanke, who works in the district’s social work services office.

Levy-Pounds earlier told the MSR, “My primary areas have been juvenile justice and criminal justice.” She has been outspoken against schools using suspensions disapportionally against Blacks and other students of color, not only as a St. Thomas law professor but also as a parent of two Black sons.

She admitted, “Those are things that I am really concerned about. I constantly go to my children’s school and advocate on their behalf — not only for my daughters, but more specifically [for] the fact that I am raising two Black boys in the public school system.

“I constantly had to talk to my sons and communicate to them about some of the traps that exist for them,” Levy-Pounds continued. “I know that they are good kids and typically they make good decisions. The problem is that the deck is so stacked against them as Black boys that even [for] a young man [who] is going to school and doing their best to learn, he can still be caught up in a system and wind up suspended or tracked into a system that is beneath his level of intelligence,” said Levy-Pounds.

“One of my greatest lessons and disappointments over the 35 years that I have been working on racial equity issues in schools is the slow pace of change,” said Howard. “We need to be careful when criticizing the schools alone for these inequities. Race-based inequality is epidemic in our society.”

“I would like to see a grassroots movement helping our parents teach their children behavior that is expected in public,” said St. Paul teacher Aaron Benner. “This movement would not be blaming anyone, but rather helping our parents who may feel overwhelmed when it comes to their children. Education has to become important again in our community. We have to take the initiative and not expect other races to get us out of this predicament.”

“We as a community have to get behind these children and hold these systems accountable,” said Levy-Pounds, “whether it’s an urban school district or a suburban school district, to make sure that they are educating our children.”


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