Our View: Important work ahead for RPS disparities

August 1, 2018


The Minnesota Department of Human Rights commissioner took the Rochester Public Schools to the woodshed at a meeting two weeks ago in Rochester.

Was it fair or constructive? To a large degree, it doesn’t matter. The district is enmeshed in a federal civil rights process and soon is expected to enter an agreement with the human rights department regarding the disparity of disciplinary actions involving students of color and those with disabilities.

At this point, the district simply needs to demonstrate its ability to reduce and eliminate those disparities, and prove its willingness to cooperate fully.

Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey indicated the district has a ways to go in that regard, according to the July 19 story by Post Bulletin reporter John Molseed. “Just because you pushed a lot of information at the federal government does not mean you have the right strategy” to address disparities in how students are disciplined, Lindsey said at the July 18 meeting at the Rochester Eagles Club.

The meeting was sponsored by the Diversity Council, Rochester for Justice, UU Racial Justice Task Group and the Olmsted County Human Rights Commission, with support from the Rochester NAACP.

Lindsey told Minnesota Public Radio News in advance of the meeting, as a shot over the bow, “What we’ve heard from school officials is that they believe the steps they have undertaken are having some success. The data suggests otherwise.”

That’s a tough assessment. Final numbers aren’t available yet for the 2017-18 school year, but the district says preliminary data shows “positive returns on its efforts to ensure students are not being unnecessarily removed from the classroom.”

Some progress reported

According to figures reported to the Rochester School Board in June:

• The total number of incidents in which a student was referred to an administrator for a “behavioral issue” dropped from 12,361 in 2016-17 to 4,336 last year.

• The number of students who were referred to administration dropped from 2,807 during 2016-17 to 1,562 last year.

• The number of suspensions dropped from 1,341 in 2016-17 to 976 last year.

Those numbers don’t get at disparities between how white and non-white students are disciplined, however, and the district conceded in a July 18 statement in connection with Lindsey’s visit, “Despite these successes, Rochester Public Schools acknowledges there is still significant work to be done on the issue of disparities.”

The district said there was a “slight decrease in the disproportionality for black students” last year, and a “significant decrease” for Native American students, with no change for Hispanic students.”

The district also noted that 196 of the 19,641 students in the district accounted for nearly half of the referrals last year.

The human rights department has focused on 43 school districts statewide that have disparities that are higher than the national rate, and it has agreements with 30 of them to deal with the issue. Lindsey pointedly noted that it hasn’t reached an agreement with the Rochester district yet.

Post Bulletin Executive Editor Jay Furst checked that point and a department spokeswoman responded by email, “One of the primary reasons for why negotiations were delayed was that the school district took the position that its agreement with the federal Office of Civil Rights addressed the concerns of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. The OCR agreement concerns only African American students. MDHR’s concerns extend to students of color and students with disabilities.”

That’s not how the district explains the lack of an agreement. In its July 18 statement, the district says, “Unfortunately, Commissioner Lindsey and the Department of Human Rights have not responded to the school district’s repeated inquiries as to what the Commissioner believes Rochester Public Schools should be doing to address student discipline disparities” in addition to what’s already being done.

“Rochester Public Schools is hopeful that it will receive a response from the Commissioner soon and remains willing to continue discussions about working collaboratively with the Department of Human Rights.”

Those negotiations apparently have resumed and the two parties hope to reach an agreement before the new school year.

Commitment and good faith

Also in its statement, the district asserts that the disparity in discipline “is an issue across the country,” and “effecting change at the local, state or national level with respect to these disparities will take more than a few school years.”

There’s truth to this. But the district can’t be seen as minimizing the discipline issue or trying to explain it away as a national problem. It’s in the midst of a complex, thorny oversight process and its job simply is to fix the problem.

The district may disagree with the process or feel that Lindsey’s comments a few weeks ago were unfair. No doubt the process is complicated and requires the personal involvement of everyone in the district. But fair and reasonable or not, that’s where the district is at. There are legitimate concerns and complaints to address, and the data reflects that.

Reducing the disparities in discipline won’t happen overnight, but if the district shows commitment and good faith, the community and hopefully state and federal monitors will chip in some patience and support.

And did we mention it’s an election year? You might be interested in hearing exactly what candidates for school board think about this issue — and listen carefully to their responses.

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