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Punished: How RPS is working to end disproportionate discipline affecting students of color

by Niala Charles, Multimedia Journalist

ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) — The Rochester Public School District has been working with the Office of Civil Rights to reduce discipline disparities in its classrooms since a 2015 report showed black and Hispanic students were disciplined disproportionately in the district.

RPS officials have known students of color are disproportionately disciplined since 2010.

Some students of color say their teachers treat them differently.

“They basically target us more than they would their own color,” said Victoria McDonald, a black student at John Marshall High School.

Some students say even tardies are handled differently based on the color of their skin.

“There’s a teacher, I don’t want to say the name, but if anyone is late he’ll be fine with white kids doing it, but then as soon as anyone is late he’ll instantly go off on you,” said John Marshall Senior Huba Abbadi.

This can create a feeling of resentment among students, and cause them to be less interested in school.

“I don’t wanna go to school. Because not only are these teachers being racist, but I feel like I’m not wanted here, and I don’t want to be at a place where I’m not wanted,” said Nyra Luster, a black student at John Marshall High School.

According to the National Education Association, once a student’s interest is affected, it can be one of the many factors that create an achievement gap within schools.

RPS has charted the discipline disparity problem since 2010.

“Are we where we need to be? No. Will we be there in a year? Probably not. But I think we’re headed in the right direction,” said RPS Superintendent Michael Muñoz.

Concerned parents and diverse groups from around the community are calling on RPS to hold themselves accountable for the disparities that occur within the hallways.

RPS officials say they’re working to address those issues so every child can succeed.

The district wasn’t surprised by the disparities. It has been battling these problems since 2010 when the Office of Civil Rights started to review what’s going on in Rochester.

“That was one thing I would always think about when I was going through school, is that I’m more than just a number. But they would always keep me as that instead of addressing me the person that is a part of that number,” said Jonathan Walston, a 2009 Mayo High Graduate.

RPS entered an agreement with the Office of Civil Rights in 2015 after a report formed with data from the district showed that black and Hispanic students only made up 21 percent of the district’s population, but received about 47 percent of suspensions and expulsions in the 2013-2014 school year.

“They never get the discipline that black kids get and it’s not right to us,” said Luster.

However, the data does not show that administrators are disciplining students disproportionately intentionally.

“They didn’t find that we were doing anything wrong, but they said you know what? You have disparities,” said Muñoz.

Since the agreement was formed with the Office of Civil Rights, RPS has hosted two community input sessions for the public to voice their concerns, and established a community focus team to brainstorm solutions.

They also hired equity professionals to serve as mediators between students and staff.

“The problem is not with what the student did. It’s far greater than that,” said Willie Tipton, an RPS Equity Professional.

Some efforts have been more successful than others. The community focus team that was established started off with about 90 participants ready to enact change in March, but after May, they didn’t meet again for about six months.

Community focus team member Kamau Wilkins said, “What ended up happening was that lots of people felt disenfranchised. They walked away from the group.”

Wilkins says another problem was the group’s lack of diversity.

“I’m the only person of color from the community,” said Wilkins.

Now the community focus team has about five members.

Recent data from the 2015-2016  school year shows that RPS has made some improvements; however, the largest disparities are still happening at Gage Elementary, Riverside Elementary, Willow Creek Middle School and the high schools.

“We need to find out in the sites where it’s not working, why is it. Is it an implementation issue or do we need to try something different,” said Muñoz.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education in the 2015-2016 School year, disruptive/disorderly conduct was the most commonly reported disciplinary incident at RPS.

According to the Minnesota Equity Partnership, disruptive/disorderly conduct is subjective, which can result in more students of color being sent to the office given the existing disparities.

Superintendent Muñoz says attacking the disparity problem will take some time.

“There’s never a silver bullet that would just fix it quickly. If it was that silver bullet would be use across the country.”

In the meantime, students are waiting to feel the change they’re told is happening.

“It’s not right to us because we all want to learn and we all want chances like they do,” said Luster.

RPS will be releasing discipline data from the first semester of the 2016-2017 school year at Tuesday’s board meeting.

The district posts discipline data as well as outreach updates on its website.


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