There’s a recent MinnPost news story on an investigation that the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) has under way, aimed at school districts and charters that have statistical racial disparities in their discipline rates. You know immediately that it’s going to be a slanted article, asserting at the outset that the “investigation comes at a time when federal officials are taking a step back from enforcing equitable access to public education for marginalized student groups,” and so the state needs to “fill the void in oversight.”
The basis for this assertion is not explained. Perhaps the reporter is speculating that the Trump administration is rethinking the Obama administration’s dubious “Dear Colleague” letter that threatened school districts with an aggressive use of the “disparate impact” approach to civil-rights enforcement in the context of school discipline. But, as I’ve explained before, such rethinking is to be welcomed, not lamented.
The MinnPost article goes on to say that “MDHR chose to focus on subjective incidents” such as “bullying, disruptive/disorderly conduct, verbal abuse, other [sic], attendance, threats and intimidation.” But of course such “subjective incidents” vary enormously in severity (talking out of turn and throwing a punch might both be “disruptive/disorderly conduct”); thus, you have to control for a lot of variables before it can be asserted that a disparity is evidence of discrimination. When the article reports that “one of the best predictors of whether a kid will get suspended is if he or she has previously been suspended,” that’s no surprise. Nor should it be a surprise to anyone that “suspensions are also associated with poor performance on tests.”
Being a non-educator and, what’s worse, a Southerner of a certain age myself, I’ll let others decide whether MDHR is correct in concluding that your typical Minnesota educator in 2018 is likely to hold “unconscious attitudes about race” and thus needs to be subjected to “rigorous implicit bias training.”
The problem is that racial disparities in discipline rates likely reflect racial disparities in discipline violations. To impose quotas on schools (what’s sought here are described delicately as “agreements with [MDHR] to work toward reducing discipline disparities that disproportionately impact students of color”) would be unconstitutional. It would also be bad policy, since if students who should be disciplined aren’t, it does them no favors in the long run, and of course immediately harms the learning environment of their classmates, who are themselves likely to be “students of color,” and may as well put them and their teachers at physical risk.
So there might be something for the Trump administration to investigate here, all right, but it might be MDHR itself.