Schools Implement Explicit Racial Bias in Suspensions


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The good: Minneapolis Public Schools want to decrease total suspensions for non-violent infractions of school rules.

The bad: The district has pledged to do this by implementing a special review system for cases where a black or Latino student is disciplined. Only minority students will enjoy this special privilege.

That seems purposefully unconstitutional—and is likely illegal, according to certain legal minds.

The new policy is the result of negotiations between MPS and the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. Minority students are disciplined at much higher rates than white students, and for two years the federal government has investigated whether that statistic was the result of institutional racism.

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has been working to decrease suspensions district-wide. She has encouraged other forms of mediation to take precedence in cases where a student's behavior is merely inappropriate, rather than violent. That's all well and good; public schools have gone discipline-crazy over the years, punishing students all-too-harshly for silly reasons every day. Any respite from overcriminalization is welcome.

Any respite, except this one:

Moving forward, every suspension of a black or brown student will be reviewed by the superintendent's leadership team. The school district aims to more deeply understand the circumstances of suspensions with the goal of providing greater supports to the school, student or family in need. This team could choose to bring in additional resources for the student, family and school.

That comes directly from Johnson's desk. I suppose it's well-intentioned—but don't all students, regardless of skin color, deserve to have their disciplinary issues adjudicated under the same standards? And yet Johnson is committed to reducing suspensions for minority students by a specific percentage, irrespective of the facts of the individual cases:

MPS must aggressively reduce the disproportionality between black and brown students and their white peers every year for the next four years. This will begin with a 25 percent reduction in disproportionality by the end of this school year; 50 percent by 2016; 75 percent by 2017; and 100 percent by 2018.

Hans Bader, a senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and former Office for Civil Rights lawyer, tells me that this disciplinary quota system violates 7th Circuit Court precedent established in a 1997 case, People Who Care v. Rockford Board of Education. In that decision, the court determined that it was unconstitutional for a school to mandate that black students be disciplined at identical rates as white students. That policy was discriminatory on its face, since it would result in children receiving different punishments depending on their race.

Instead of doing to high school discipline what activists have done to college admissions, let's relax zero tolerance for everyone.

Clarification: Minnesota is under the jurisdiction of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. But, as Bader told me, the 8th often follows the 7th. And the author of the Rockford decision was none other than Judge Richard Posner, one of the most well-respected legal minds in the country. So there is every reason to expect that MPS's racial disciplinary quota would similarly be deemed unconstitutional.