Cloquet is one of 43 school districts that the Minnesota Department of Human Rights threatened with charges of discrimination if it doesn't address racial disparity for suspensions and expulsions.
In an analysis of numbers from schools across the state, MDHR found that students of color comprise 31 percent of Minnesota's student population, and receive 66 percent of all suspensions and expulsions. Students with disabilities comprise 14 percent of Minnesota's student population and receive 43 percent of all suspensions and expulsions.
Those disparities, according to MDHR, are a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act because they deny students of color and students with disabilities educational access and negatively impact academic achievement.
Last fall, Cloquet received a letter from MDHR inviting the school district to "meet with the department to develop corrective action strategies." The school district compiled and the two entities are in negotiations.
If MDHR and a district are unable to reach an agreement, then the department could file administrative charges of discrimination, which could ultimately lead to legal action, but that is uncommon. As of April 27, the agency had reached agreements with 10 districts and charter schools and filed charges against two school districts.
Although he didn't like the MDHR's use of such a big stick to get its point across, Cloquet Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said he agrees with the agency's goals of reducing out-of-school suspensions and discipline disproportionality.
American Indian Education Program Director Teresa Angell said she doesn't believe the district's American Indian students were unfairly targeted for suspension. At the same time, she also wasn't surprised to hear about disproportionality, which she called "another lens to look at data," noting that it is especially important in closing all achievement gaps.
MDHR didn't share the specific Cloquet numbers from its analysis with the Pine Journal because negotiations with the school district are ongoing. However, when Scarbrough did his own analysis for the 2016-17 school year, he also found disparity. Of the total of in-school and out-of-school suspensions, 34.2 percent were for white students, 62.6 percent were Native American students and 3.2 percent were other races. Native American students make up about 23 percent of Cloquet's total student population.
Scarbrough took it a step further than MDHR and considered multiple incidents by the same student or students. The superintendent said 35.9 percent of the disciplinary incidents involved 7.4 percent of the students disciplined, so repeat offenders make up a significant number of suspensions and expulsions.
In an interview with the Pine Journal, MDHR Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said when they looked at repeat suspensions and expulsions, it did impact the disproportionality of the numbers for Cloquet, but they still thought it best to pursue an agreement with the school district.
Lindsey explained that MDHR didn't look at discipline resulting from weapons, drugs or fighting, but focused on disciplinary actions that were more subjective. The most common reason — between 55 percent and 58 percent of suspension decisions over five years — given among those more subjective actions was "disruptive, disorderly or insubordinate" behavior.
"Raising three teenage sons, I'm very aware they don't always agree with Dad or Mom, so I appreciate the fact that a lot of behaviors can fall into that bucket of disruptive-disorderly," Lindsey said. "The question we have to ask is: 'Are schools reacting differently (to those behaviors) on the basis of race, ethnicity or for individuals with disabilities?'"
It's been a learning experience, Scarbrough said.
"Equity doesn't mean equal treatment," the superintendent at Monday's Cloquet School Board meeting. "It means you look at, 'How do we make kids successful?' It might take additional resources, it might take different kinds of reactions, but we're going to work to maximize success for all students."
A Cloquet Plan
Scarbrough explained that rather than adopting the plan suggested by MDHR, Cloquet has submitted its own tentative plan to reduce discipline referrals and out-of-school suspension and expulsion rates. Lindsey said he's encouraged by the language in the plan, and thinks it will help reduce disproportionality for Native American students.
The introductory paragraph talks about taking a broad approach to the issues and applying the policies to all students, rather than focusing only on particular groups.
"The Cloquet School District believes that reducing disciplinary referrals for our students is more than about focusing on discipline policies and consequences. Students need to feel a sense of belongingness with school, experience social and emotional support, and have positive views of themselves, their peers, and their future. This will require a multi-faceted approach, community engagement and consistent assessment of defined indicators to determine how well our community is achieving these goals."
The district will be expanding and/or fine-tuning a number of programs or initiatives already has in place. One of those is the Restorative Practices (RP) program that has been implemented at the Cloquet Area Alternative Education Program (CAAEP) over the past two years.
Instead of doling out prescribed punishments to students, like suspensions or staying after school, RP essentially works with circles of people. An RP circle will usually include all the parties affected by an injustice. For example, if a student disrupts a classroom with his or her behavior, the circle will include the student and teacher, as well as some classmates. They talk about what happened, how they were affected and what should be done to repair the harm.
Clay, a student ambassador at CAAEP last fall, figures going into an RP circle makes a person more accountable for his or her behavior.
"When you go into a circle, it feels like you gotta figure something out," Clay said. "It makes it a bigger situation because people can see it their way and the other way."
The district already imposes some in-school suspensions, but Scarbrough said they plan to increase capabilities and resources for this response to unwanted behaviors.
"If you send a kid home, what does that do? Where is the instruction?" the superintendent said.
Rather than sending students to something like an all-day study hall, however, they will work with the students to help them learn to better control emotional reactions and social situations, and teach them replacement skills and strategies to use when emotional situations threaten to get destructive.
Washington Elementary School Principal Robbi Mondati broke down the changes to helping kids gain needed skill sets, even some that haven't traditionally been the purview of school teachers.
"Our kids are coming to us with skill deficits and they need more support," she said. "For some kids, it might be reading or math; for others, it's social-emotional needs or citizenship."
Teachers will also get more training to help them respond in a "trauma-informed" manner and recognize and respond to adverse childhood experiences as well as cultural differences. Schools will continue to utilize positive behavioral intervention and supports for students with disabilities, according to the plan.
The district's existing programs for Native American students — tutoring, parent committees, cultural activities and language lessons, home school liaisons and more — are a strong part of the school district already, which boasts a much higher than state average Native American graduation rate (96 percent at the high school versus the state average of 52.6 percent in 2016).
Angell said she believes the district has provided adequate resources to meet the unique needs of our Native American students. But she is excited by the idea of implementing strategies focused on alternatives to suspension, and says it will benefit all students.
"I think the changes can't come soon enough. The proposed changes reflect a lot on the RP model at CAAEP and I have had an opportunity to be a witness to that success over the past two years." Angell said.
The district will also continue to network with the various mental health agencies that provide assessments and services already.
Resource rooms and more
During Monday's meeting, in a move that will now be part of the final plan to be submitted to MDHR, board members unanimously approved a district-wide plan that includes hiring additional staff and creating "resource rooms" at each school to help address social-emotional learning and disciplinary support.
Scarbrough said beyond the initial de-escalation responses in the resource room, students will learn to evaluate their reactions and develop strategies to cope with emotional triggers. They will learn to take responsibility for their behavior and use strategies to help restore damage done because of inappropriate emotional responses. While away from the classroom, academic instruction and support will be provided, so students may continue to learn and not feel academically frustrated returning to their classrooms.
At Washington Elementary School, the dean of students will be in charge of the resource room, while Churchill will likely hire a social worker to supervise there.
At the middle school, two teachers will be paid sixth-period stipends to coordinate and supervise the program. One paraprofessional will be hired so that the resource room can be supervised all periods of the day.
The high school will teachers to supervise this resource room in lieu of supervising a study hall. One CHS teacher will be hired for a sixth period stipend to coordinate, supervise and provide training for the program.
In addition to the resource rooms and support staff, the district will also focus on addressing truancy issues and social-emotional learning. They will also work to improve tracking data to address disproportionality and other data required by MDHR and the state Legislature.
All of the extra support for social-emotional skills, mental health and academics will be available and applied to all students, Scarbrough told the board.
"This crosses all races, all economics," he told the board. "We have these skill deficits out there and (these are resources) for all students."