MINNEAPOLIS — When Erin Rathke, the principal at Justice Page Middle School, is called to extract a student from class, she hears the same plea over and over again, most often, she has to admit, from black children: “The teacher only sees me.”
The plea weighs heavily at Justice Page, where African-American students are 338 percent more likely to be suspended than their white peers. “It’s painful sometimes, but I have to say, ‘Yes, that’s probably true,’” Ms. Rathke said.
It is a reality that district leaders here have been grappling with for years: The Minneapolis school district suspends an inordinate number of black students compared with white ones, and it is struggling to figure out why. Last year, districtwide, black students were 41 percent of the overall student population, but made up 76 percent of the suspensions.
Numbers like that prompted the Obama administration in 2014 to draft tough new policies to try to address racial disparities in school discipline across the country. Now, the Trump administration is trying to reverse those policies — in part, administration officials say, as a response to school shootings like the massacre last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
The Obama-era policies — and the Trump-era reversals — have divided educators in the Twin Cities. In recent months, educators from Minneapolis, St. Paul and suburban Minnesota traveled to Washington to lobby the Education Department in support of reversing the 2014 guidelines, which encouraged school districts to review racial disparities in student discipline rates to ensure against violations of federal civil rights laws. Those that do not comply can face federal investigation or a loss of funding.
Then another group followed them to lobby for keeping the guidance.
A retired Minnesota teacher set off a conservative media blitz by linking the Obama-era guidance to frustrations that teachers have with violent students, raising the issue high enough for the White House to latch on after the Parkland massacre. The coverage prompted Republicans to speculate about whether relaxed disciplinary policies had allowed the violent track record of Nikolas Cruz, who has been charged in the shooting, to evade law enforcement.
Debbie York, the teacher who raised the issue in a Breitbart News article, was forced to retire after a first grader in her suburban Minnesota school pushed her, injuring her back and neck. The school district said she had violated privacy laws by speaking out about the incident.
The story inspired a Minnesota bill bolstering teachers’ authority to remove threatening students from their classrooms. Ms. York is advocating that the law go national, and that the Obama guidance be repealed.
“It’s not about arming teachers with guns; it is about arming them with the freedom to talk about troubled kids whose behavior not only needs to be assessed, but when the behavior puts others at risk of serious harm, intervention other than therapy,” Ms. York said.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has been eyeing the guidance for reversal since she took office, will head a White House commission on school safety that has been specifically tasked with examining whether to repeal the discipline guidance.
Civil rights groups and congressional Democrats are standing by the guidance and pointing to evidence that suspensions are helping to drive the achievement gap between white and minority students. Suspensions and expulsions are also linked to the disproportionate numbers of minority students in the criminal justice system.
In a letter to Ms. DeVos, Representative Robert C. Scott of Virginia, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee, said that her office was aware of a coming report from the Government Accountability Office that would “very likely substantiate claims” of a persistent inequality in the “treatments of students of color and students with disabilities.”
“Ensuring public access to the G.A.O. findings prior to any agency action on the guidance is especially necessary given the recent factually inaccurate assertions that wrongly place blame for the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, on the 2014 guidance,” Mr. Scott wrote.
But in Minneapolis, as in districts across the nation, discipline policies are more than a political flash point. They are a daily struggle to balance safety and statistics, and the uncomfortable truths about how race may be clouding educators’ perception of both.
“We’re in a pressure cooker,” said Michael Thomas, the district’s chief of schools. “And what’s happening in Minneapolis is a microcosm of what’s happening across America.”
While critics of the Obama-era discipline changes argue that disparities cannot be explained away by racism, education leaders here say it is the natural place to start.
Bernadeia Johnson, a former Minneapolis schools superintendent, launched her own review of discipline referrals for kindergarten boys after the federal government began investigating her district. The review was revealing, she said. The descriptions of white children by teachers included “gifted but can’t use his words” and “high strung,” with their actions excused because they “had a hard day.”
Black children, she said, were “destructive” and “violent,” and “cannot be managed.”
“When you see something like that and you’re a leader, and you’re trying to figure out how to move the school system forward — it was alarming,” Ms. Johnson said.
Nationally, black students are suspended three times as often as their white peers; in Minnesota, it is eight times as often. To explain this trend, officials here point to the rapid increase in the state’s minority population in the last decade, and the fact that the state has the largest poverty gap between blacks and whites in the nation.
Last month, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights notified 43 school districts and charter schools that suspension rates for nonviolent offenses still suggested widespread discriminatory practices.
“We’re at a tipping point, and that’s what you see in the schools” said Kevin Lindsey, the state’s human rights commissioner.
The school district is trying to engage students and educators in conversations, which they hope will help the situation.
“Our students for years have been publicly expressing that they want to be seen differently, be judged equitably,” Mr. Thomas said. “We’re still adjusting our listening frequency.”
But some teachers say that the approach has undermined their profession and set students up for failure. One case that has received particular attention is a student’s violent assault in 2016 of his teacher, John Ekblad. Last year, Mr. Ekblad was part of a Minnesota contingent of teachers who met with Trump administration officials to discuss Obama-era disciplinary policies.
Simon Whitehead, a former physical education teacher at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, said he had watched the district’s discipline policy changes play out in his classes. Name-calling escalated to shoving, and then physical assaults. Profanity was redefined as “cultural dialect,” he said.
“It threw the school into complete chaos,” he said. “The kids knew they weren’t going to go home.”
Mr. Whitehead said he learned not to call his students out in front of their peers. He did not use the word “detention,” but rather “quality time.” Eventually, he would just “sweep a lot under the rug.”
The discipline model that he said had worked for him for 25 years — a warning, then a consequence — was no longer recognized by his bosses. He retired last year, labeled a racist.
“We do need to train teachers, especially white teachers, on how to interact with our African-American students,” he said. “But not expecting the same things from them is actually disrespectful. That would actually be racist.”
The root of those changes was in the district’s 2014 settlement agreement with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which had conducted a yearlong investigation into its discipline practices.
Federal investigators found that a black second-grade student was suspended for one day for poking another student with a pencil, but a white second grader who threw a rock that hit another student and broke a teacher’s sunglasses was not. The white student was allowed to work off the cost of the sunglasses by helping the teacher at lunch for several days.
Ms. Johnson ordered several policy changes amid the 2014 settlement, including a moratorium on suspensions for students in pre-K through first grade for nonviolent offenses, and she pledged to personally review referrals to suspend minority students for nonviolent offenses.
The policy changes prompted a backlash both locally and nationally. In a letter, Peter Kirsanow, a Republican commissioner on the United States Commission on Civil Rights, called the move “legally and constitutionally suspect.” He said her goal of closing the discipline gap between black and white students by 2018 was “introducing a racial quota system for school discipline.”
One month after the changes were announced, Ms. Johnson resigned.
“When people have kids around them that don’t look like them, they want them controlled,” she said.
The district’s agreement with the Education Department is still active, and it requires the district to continually review its discipline data and policies.
There are bright spots.
At Lyndale Community School, which has almost equal percentages of minority and white students, discipline is a “loaded term,” said the principal, Mark Stauduhar. He said his data — there were two suspensions in the school of more than 500 last year — showed that the school was a “healthy place” that emphasized positive reinforcement.
When it comes to misbehavior, “the conversations are about a mistake that a child made, not something that’s wrong with them,” he said. Most important, he added, his staff members are all on the same page. “If students are demonstrating behaviors that are not aligned with our policy, it’s our job to figure out why.”
But, in the district as a whole, after four years, and three superintendents, it has made meager progress. Suspensions have fallen, but racial disparities persist. Black students remain three times as likely to be suspended.
Justice Page is one of the schools contributing to that gap, and Ms. Rathke and her team are working to change course.
Fresh murals on the school walls depict students from different ethnic groups linking arms, a nod to the demographic shift that the school underwent three years ago when the district completed a merger of three racially and socioeconomically different schools.
The school adopted a new curriculum this year that Ms. Rathke said had required teachers to reflect on how they were adjusting to a more diverse student body.
“I think we have to challenge our own biases every day,” she said. “Some teachers aren’t ready; some teachers need more time. But I just tell them that we’re not going to give up on students, and I’m not going to give up on them.”
There are signs of hope. Students successfully campaigned last year torename the school for the state’s first black Supreme Court justice, Alan Page. It had previously been named for Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota’s first governor, who advocated genocide against Indian tribes.
“We are more than these numbers,” Ms. Rathke said. “But they’re telling us something: We have students that we just haven’t figured out how to support yet.”