Despite reducing overall suspensions by 25 percent over four years, St. Paul Public Schools continues to kick African-American and American Indian students out of school at alarming rates relative to their peers.
In 2010-11, the district set an ambitious goal for racial equity in school discipline: that the student demographic with the most suspensions be excluded from school at no more than twice the rate of the racial group with the fewest suspensions -- Asian-Americans.
The district hasn't come close to its target. Per student last school year, African-Americans were suspended at 19 times the rate of Asian-Americans, and American Indians at 15 times the rate of Asian-Americans.
Any suspension ratios greater than 8-to-1 are considered a "critical" problem on the district's internal report card.
And yet, students are spending far less time out of school than they were a few years ago. The district said school administrators handed out 4,837 out-of-school suspensions in 2011-12. Last year, that number was 3,629. Every racial group except American Indians saw per-student suspensions fall by more than 20 percent in that time.
Russell Skiba, director of the Equity Project at Indiana University, said St. Paul's data tells a familiar story. Although schools in the South suspend more students, Midwestern states have the largest racial disparities in school discipline.
And, like St. Paul, Skiba said, most districts that try to reduce suspensions succeed overall but fail to close racial disparities.
"What it says is that it's a work in progress. I think St. Paul should celebrate the progress that's being made while saying we should look more closely at it, as well," he said.
The district's student body is about 32 percent Asian-American, 30 percent African-American, 22 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic and 2 percent American Indian.
During the 2010-11 school year, St. Paul school leaders assembled "vision cards" to monitor a range of goals under Superintendent Valeria Silva's strategic plan, Strong Schools Strong Communities.
When they turned to school discipline, district chief executive Michelle Walker said, "There was a very strong visual picture" that emerged on racial disparities. That set off conversations about how to address the problem throughout the city.
The same racial groups with high suspensions tend to perform poorly on academic measures, such as tests and graduation rates -- Asian-Americans in St. Paul are an exception, rarely disrupting class but scoring lower on tests. Acknowledging that zero-tolerance policies aren't working, schools across the country are implementing their own K-12 versions of restorative justice.
In 2012-13, St. Paul followed the example of some other large U.S. school districts by removing "willful disobedience" from its list of student misbehavior that warrants a suspension. Walker said that category accounted for a lot of office referrals for relatively minor and subjective offenses, such as a student refusing to look up when addressed by a teacher.
The district also began to train its largely white teaching force to examine their own biases, and encouraged all employees to speak openly about the ways race matters at school.
At the same time, the district pressed school administrators to figure out what's behind racial discrepancies in suspensions in their buildings. Discipline data even became part of a comprehensive bonus pay program for principals.
Andrew Collins, an assistant superintendent for elementary schools, said absences, behavior referrals and suspensions or expulsions accounted for 15 percent of the merit pay calculation, which no longer is in place.
The focus on suspensions seemed to have made a significant difference. The district saw a 28 percent decline in suspensions in 2012-13 after a 14 percent drop the year before.
But amid major programmatic changes to special education and English learners and a move from two-grade junior high schools to three-grade middle schools, suspensions jumped back up 15 percent in 2013-14 and an additional 5 percent last year.
Stacey Gray Akyea, the district's research director, said only about 5 percent of all St. Paul students get suspended in a given year, but "within the population that we do suspend, there are tremendous disproportionalities."
To continue reading about the implications of positive approaches and student behavior in St. Paul School's click here: St. Paul School Suspensions Drop, But Racial Disparities Stick Around