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Disproportionate discipline not unique to Rochester

Rochester Public Schools suspends black students at a much higher rate than other students, but that disparity is not unique to this district.

St. Paul and Minneapolis are both facing similar disproportionate suspension rates, which has received significant media attention. Minnesota's discipline disparities are roughly on par with national numbers, according to March 2014 data from the U.S Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. That report says, among other things, that black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students.

Amy Goetz, an attorney at the School Law Center in St. Paul, says that school districts are not legally required to publicly disclose such data to local media, which can make it an "underground process."

"It's a well-kept secret," Goetz said. "I don't think the OCR requires (school districts) to make that information public, but they should. If it's an underground process, how much parent input was there and how much impact can there really be?"

Assistant Superintendent Brenda Lewis admitted Thursday that parents have yet to be informed of the discipline gap facing black students in Rochester, saying the entire process is "definitely a work in progress."


The district is printing about 17,000 new copies of its revamped Student Behavior Handbooks. That document is typically mailed to families before the first day of class, but the process got delayed this year because the OCR agreement.

That unusual hurdle, which was cleared Tuesday after receiving federal approval, was required as part of the 15-page agreement with the OCR.

Forums are planned

Community forums are tentatively planned for late 2015 or early 2016 to solicit feedback from parents and other stakeholders. Those dialogues are required by the OCR as a way to begin correcting the complicated issue, but Lewis says that race-related topics are frequently discussed at dialogue sessions.

Lewis says those meetings couldn't be scheduled until language in the new handbook was approved by OCR.

"These are pieces where we really need to enlist the input of families and the community," Lewis said.

But the discipline disparities aren't new issues with Rochester Public Schools.

The P-B recently obtained a letter that former Superintendent Romain Dallemand sent to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that says the district has been attempting corrective action since 2007. The letter is dated Nov. 30, 2010.


"As a result of analyzing our discipline data and the disproportionalities which exist, our schools have implemented a number of strategies in the site's Integrated Improvement Plans and the Site in Need of Improvement Plans to decrease the number of referrals for our black and brown students," Dallemand wrote.

Kolloh Nimley, a program specialist for the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage's Rochester office, expressed frustration that parents have yet to be informed of the discipline disparity, an issue that's apparently almost a decade old. She contends that district initiatives are doomed to fail — or continue failing, based on the stagnant numbers — without such public collaboration.

"It's frustrating, but there's a beginning for everything," Nimley said. "Rochester just got a referendum passed. I'm hoping and praying some of that money will get used to address the problems raised here.

"But until we get parents involved, it's not going to work."

New discipline supervisor

Afolabi Runsewe was hired over the summer to serve as the district's point man to address the discipline disparities.

His official title is Principal on Special Assignment: Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning, but he was also appointed as the district's Discipline Supervisor on Aug. 15, as required by the district's agreement with the OCR. He's working closely with the Great Lakes Equity Center in Indianapolis, which has partnered with the district for the next three years, to "strengthen the effectiveness of existing policies and practices," per OCR requirements.

Rochester Superintendent Michael Munoz helped interview Runsewe, but declined to answer specific questions about him last week, citing employee confidentiality. The district's new discipline supervisor was not made available for questions after the P-B obtained the full OCR report on the discipline disparities.


Capt. John Sherwin of the Rochester Police Department, who supervises the five liaison officers deployed within district buildings, said last week that he was unaware of Runsewe and his role as discipline supervisor.

Lewis and Runsewe previously worked together in the St. Paul School District — where similar discipline disparities exist — but did not know each other, Lewis said.

"The heart of Afolabi's position is to really work on closing that gap," said Lewis, who is his supervisor.

Runsewe's resume says he has the "ability to generate new ideas, analyze problems and develop effective solutions," claiming he's someone who "relates well and works cooperatively with diverse populations."

New discipline policy

His resume says he's a graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato. Runsewe's last two jobs were as an administrative intern at Highland Park Junior High and Creative Arts Secondary School. His work focused extensively on Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS — a program Goetz describes as "a godsend" for tackling discipline disparities like the one being confronted in Rochester.

Rochester began implementing PBIS under Dallemand's tenure, and Lewis says it's now active in every district building.

"It's started to recalibrate how schools are thinking about human behavior and responding to it," Goetz said. "It truly is making a significant change … in our schools. It's turning down the zero-tolerance fervor that has swept through our schools."


"It's really a system that sets students up for success," Lewis said.

The district, under Runsewe's guidance, has also enlisted the help of its students to combat the discipline problem from within. A 93-member Student School Board, which includes 22 black students, is holding monthly meetings to focus on the issues of race and equity. School Board members Jean Marvin and Julie Workman have been attending those lunch meetings that are held at the Edison Building.

"As far as our goals, we want to see those reductions happening," said Lewis, who has extensive training on the issue after previous jobs in Washington D.C. and St. Paul Public Schools. "We need to keep seeing progress. But quite frankly, the gap is not unique to our district."

The Advancement Project, an American nonprofit organization focused on racial justice issues, says that PBIS and other programs are a start for addressing the the discipline gaps. However, it also notes that the Departments of Education and Justice have taken a "firm stance" under the Obama Administration that racial disparities could violate the law and eventually lead to Civil Rights lawsuits.

The federal government has warned districts that they could face legal action if their discipline policies have a disparate impact, or "a disproportionate and unjustified effect" on students of a particular race.

That legal threat has forced school districts to walk a tricky line — and not everyone is happy about it.

Joshua Dunn, an education law expert at the Fordham Institute, says that the new federal guidelines "will encourage schools to tolerate disruptive and dangerous behavior lest they have too many students of one race being punished. The effect will be to punish students who behave and want to learn since their education will be sabotaged by troublemakers. And the disruptive (students) will certainly learn, and learn quickly, that their schools are now tolerating even more disruptive behavior."

Disparity tied to achievement gap


Some contend that the recently-released discipline disparities are related to other long-standing issue within Rochester Public Schools — a lack of black teachers, and the achievement gap.

As Rochester's student population continues to diversify — about 33 percent are currently minorities, a figure that's expect to hit 50 percent by 2020 — the district has made concerted efforts to diversify its teaching corps. The hope is to become more teachers who are culturally aware and representative of their pupils.

Despite partnering with Winona State and making a strong recruiting push to hire minority educators, it's proved to be a fruitless effort. Just seven of the district's 1,275 teachers are black — or half of one percent — and 54 are non-white.

Part of Runsewe's responsibilities, Lewis says, is helping change those numbers.

"How do we retain the staff we have, make them want to be here, and break down walls for them so they're comfortable here?" Lewis said of the challenge the district is facing.

A recent home visit to a frequently disciplined black student provided one teacher with an intimate glimpse into how cultural differences — and a corresponding lack of cultural awareness or training — plays a role in the numbers. Lewis says what was considered disruptive in school was simply standard with the student's family. Trying to bridge that gap will be critical moving forward.

"It's really that connection piece and getting to know our students," Lewis said.

The Advancement Project says it's important for schools to address "explicit and implicit biases" to create an "equitable school environment for all students."


Lack of diverse teachers

Nimley contends that the lack of racially diverse teachers creates a trickle-down effect on discipline.

"What do these teachers know about the black kid in their classroom?" Nimley said. "Do you understand their culture? You can create all the programs you want. If you don't understand each other, it's not going to work."

Another issue agreed upon by all parties is that the discipline disparity has a direct impact on the achievement gap. Black students accounted for at 40.3 percent of the district's in-school suspensions between 2011-15 and 40.8 percent of out-of-school suspensions over the same time frame.

Lewis acknowledges that "if they're not in the classroom, then they're not engaged in learning."

Rochester's overall graduation rate was 83.6 percent, according to data released in February. Black students had a graduation rate of 66.3 percent — which is actually up from 61.5 percent in 2013 — but white students have a graduation rate of 88.5 percent.

Minnesota's average graduation rate in 2014 was 81 percent.

Goetz says all of these racial issues are directly related.

"If we're kicking kids of color out of class at a three times or greater rate, the signals are clear," Goetz said. "They're missing instruction time. They're being told 'We don't want you here and we don't need you here.' Any reasonable person would believe there's a direct correlation between these exclusionary policies to … their lack of graduation, their greater numbers in juvenile detention and the school-to-prison pipeline. It's all correlated."

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