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Undisciplined: Chaos may be coming to Minnesota classrooms, by decree

A state agency aims to eliminate racial disparities in schools’ response to misbehavior. Its destabilizing course would only spread the disruption. 

This commentary originally appeared in the Star Tribune as their Sunday opinion section cover on March 18, 2018. [Star Tribune illustration.]

Brace yourself, parents of Minnesota. Here’s what’s coming soon to a school near you: increased violence, brazen challenges to teachers’ authority and a chaotic environment where learning is an uphill battle. Teachers who try to exert control will find their hands tied, and some kids — no longer accountable for their behavior — will feel free to provoke mischief and mayhem.

If this happens at your school, you’ll be able to thank the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR). In fall 2017, the department sent letters to 43 school districts and charter schools across the state, announcing that the schools are under investigation because their student discipline records suggest that black and Native American students are disciplined at a rate that exceeds their proportion of the student population.

On March 2, the department released a report it said showed that, in the 2015-16 school year, minority students — 31 percent of the state’s student population — accounted for 66 percent of school suspensions and expulsions.

MDHR has declined to make public either the letters or the identity of the districts targeted, citing ongoing investigations. But Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey provided troubling details in a recent interview with MinnPost.

Here, in essence, is MDHR’s position: The primary cause of racial discipline gaps in schools is racist teachers and discipline policies, not differing rates of student misconduct. Schools must move to end these statistical group disparities. If administrators don’t agree to change their practices in ways that reduce black and Native American discipline rates, according to MinnPost, “Lindsey says the state will initiate litigation.”

We’ve seen this movie before, most recently in the St. Paul Public Schools. There, it had devastating consequences for students of all backgrounds. MDHR bureaucrats must have been the only people in St. Paul who weren’t paying attention to this debacle.

In St. Paul schools — as virtually everywhere in the country — black students, as a group, are referred for discipline at higher rates than other students. Starting around 2012, the district’s leaders tried to narrow this gap by lowering behavior expectations and removing meaningful penalties for student misconduct. For example, they spent millions of dollars on “white privilege” training for teachers, and dropped “continual willful disobedience” as a suspendable offense.

Violence and disorder quickly escalated. In some schools, anarchic conditions made learning difficult, if not impossible, according to teachers. In December 2015, after a vicious attack by a student left a high school teacher with a traumatic brain injury, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi labeled the trend of violence a “public health crisis,” according to news accounts.

By that time, suspensions — which had initially fallen — had surged to their highest rate in five years. Black students, about 30 percent of the student body, were 77 percent of those suspended. The St. Paul teachers’ union threatened to strike over safety concerns, and families who valued education began flooding out of St. Paul schools. In June 2016, the school board voted out the superintendent.

Today, MDHR seems intent on duplicating this failed social experiment throughout Minnesota. The department — whose use of state law for this purpose appears virtually unprecedented — is probably doing so because the federal government seems poised to back off on enforcing Obama-era race-based discipline “guidance.”

In its campaign to transform Minnesota schools, MDHR is operating under a shroud of secrecy. Reportedly, officials in the 43 targeted districts and charters have not informed parents that their schools are under investigation, most likely because MDHR has threatened to initiate legal action against them unless they cooperate and because they fear adverse publicity.

As a result, the parents and communities affected will have no chance to examine the data that allegedly expose their teachers as racists, or to influence the radical new approach to discipline that MDHR is foisting on their children’s classrooms.

Is this how things are supposed to work in our public schools?

The fact is, public scrutiny is vital here, to expose the three deeply flawed premises on which MDHR’s race-focused discipline campaign is based.

The department’s first faulty premise is that teachers, not students, are to blame for the racial discipline gap. MDHR bureaucrats’ key (if unspoken) assumption is that students with widely different socioeconomic and family backgrounds — as groups — all misbehave in school at the same rate. Relying on this premise, the department attributes any significant group disparities to discriminatory teachers and discipline practices, by default.

But consider this: Nationally, white boys are suspended at more than twice the rate of Asian and Pacific Islander boys, while boys in general are suspended much more often than girls.

Is this because teachers are biased against white students and boys? Or does it reflect real differences in conduct?

There are, in fact, real differences in group behavior. For example, nationally, young black males between the ages of 14 and 17 commit homicide at 10 times the rate of whites and Hispanics of the same age. Behaviors that lead to criminal conduct are also likely to produce school misconduct. Tragically, black students’ discipline rate is most likely higher than other students’ because, on average, they misbehave more.

A groundbreaking 2014 study by J.P. Wright and colleagues in the Journal of Criminal Justice appears to confirm this. Using the largest sample of school-aged children in the nation, the authors found that teacher bias plays no role in the racial discipline gap, which is “completely accounted for by a measure of the prior problem behavior of the student.”

What accounts for group differences in behavior? A primary factor appears to be profound demographic differences in family structure. Nationally, about 72 percent of African-American and 66 percent of Native American children are born out of wedlock, as opposed to 29 percent and 17 percent of white and Asian children, respectively. Young people who grow up without fathers are far more likely than their peers to engage in antisocial behavior, as voluminous research makes clear.

MDHR’s second flawed premise is that black students’ higher suspension rates give rise to a “school to prison pipeline,” which reduces their chances for future success. Lindsey told MinnPost that kids who miss school because of suspensions aren’t as likely as others to learn or graduate, and so are more likely to land in prison.

But the problem of missed school days goes far beyond days missed for suspensions. Chronic absenteeism, defined in Minnesota as missing more than 10 percent of school days, is linked with poverty and home conditions. In 2015-16, 37 percent of Native American and 21 percent of black students were chronically absent, compared with 11 percent and 8 percent of white and Asian students, respectively.

If MDHR is serious about keeping young people out of prison, it should focus its efforts here.

MDHR’s third flawed premise is that discipline policies that focus more on race than on a student’s actual conduct somehow benefit poor and minority children.

In fact, the greatest victims of such policies are the children — many poor and minority — who come to school ready to learn. The classroom disorder these policies promote can add insurmountable obstacles to their quest for a decent education.

Race-based policies also harm the student troublemakers they are intended to help. Often, these young people aren’t taught self-control or respect for others at home. Their only chance to master vital social skills is at an orderly school. But if instead they learn that bad behavior and disrespect for authority carry no adverse consequences, how can they ever hope to hold a job or become productive citizens?

The misguided approach to discipline that MDHR is foisting on Minnesota schools has a dismal track record, from Los Angeles to New York.

In 2014, for example, New York’s attorney general compelled the Syracuse Public Schools to reduce racial disparities in suspensions.

Violence quickly mushroomed out of control as behavior standards were lowered. In 2015, a teachers’ union survey found that the district’s teachers and staff felt “helpless” to combat it. Two-thirds of respondents reported worrying about their safety, 57 percent had been threatened and 36 percent had been physically assaulted — shoved, kicked, head-butted, choked or bitten. Many described daily harassment in the form of crude and abusive language, frequently racial or sexual in nature.

In 2017, after a Syracuse high school student stabbed a teacher twice, the Onondaga County district attorney issued an urgent call for reversal of the 2014 discipline policy changes.

Minnesota parents should demand to know whether MDHR has targeted their school district or charter school. Other schools will also be under pressure to alter their discipline policies to avoid finding themselves in MDHR’s cross hairs.

Only prompt citizen action can avoid potentially disastrous consequences for all of Minnesota’s children.

Katherine Kersten is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. She is at kakersten@gmail.com.

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