The Rochester school district has entered into an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to address racial disparities in student discipline.
The school board in closed session Tuesday approved a three-year agreement that requires the district to submit discipline data reports to the MDHR twice a year, along with reports on policies implemented to address discipline disparities.
The new agreement begins as a similar arrangement between the school district and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights ends this year.
"A lot of it is a continuation of what we’ve been working on the last couple years," said Michael Muñoz, Rochester schools superintendent.
The OCR intervened in 2015 after a five-year compliance review revealed that black students at Rochester schools were being disproportionately disciplined.
Muñoz said that disparity has narrowed, but acknowledged the district has a long way to go. In the 2017-2018 school year, black students made up 45 percent of disciplinary referrals while representing about 16 percent of the total student body.
Muñoz said the district’s culturally responsive classrooms and nonverbal classroom management program have helped reduce the number of students removed from the classroom for disciplinary reasons. He noted referrals are down overall.
"Fewer kids missing instructional time," he said. "That’s our goal."
The Rochester district is one of 43 Minnesota school districts and charter schools that were found to suspend or expel ethnic minority students at a higher than average rate. Last fall, the MDHR directed those 43 districts to come up with a plan to address the disparities or face the department in court. In July, the MDHR filed a charge of discrimination against the district. Under the new agreement, that charge would be dismissed.
The new plan offers no specific benchmarks or strategies to reduce the disparities. Muñoz said that gives the district flexibility to develop plans that work best and work with the community to address the problem instead of trying to hit arbitrary numbers.
"I think there’s more community engagement (outlined) in the new plan than there was in the past," he said.
Kamau Wilkins, a member of the Community Focus Team, which is examining the discipline issue, said he doubts there will be more community engagement under the agreement. He said he did not know the district had entered into an agreement with the MDHR until he was contacted by the Post Bulletin for comment.
"The community is consistently, and, it seems, purposefully left out," Wilkins said.
Of the 43 districts identified by the MDHR as having discipline disparities, 41 have entered into agreements with the agency to address the issue.