FARGO — Cani Adan hears many of the complaints from parents, but so far, he says there’s been little he can do to help keep students of color from facing suspensions in local schools.
“A lot of parents walk in and tell us about that,” said Adan, program coordinator for the Afro American Development Association in Moorhead. “They are wondering why their kids are coming home."
In the Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead school districts, students of color are being disciplined at higher rates than their white classmates, according to a Forum analysis of statistics for the three districts.
- Fargo had 9.9 suspensions per 100 students of color in the 2019-2020 school year, while there were 4 suspensions per 100 white students.
- West Fargo had 6.2 suspensions per 100 students of color in 2019-2020, while there were 2.9 suspensions per 100 white students.
- Moorhead had 10.2 disciplinary actions per 100 students of color in 2018-2019, while there were 2.7 disciplinary actions per 100 white students. Disciplinary actions included suspensions, exclusions and expulsions in Moorhead schools.
Those familiar with the issue say the reasons for these discrepancies include systemic racism as well as language and cultural barriers. School officials are aware of the problem, but it remains one without an easy solution.
“Sometimes we see a black kid do something and get reported right away, while a white kid won’t get reported," Adan said. "The school system, probably 80% of the teachers are good, but the system needs to get fixed.”
Students of color — who include Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander students, and those belonging to two or more races — make up about 29% of Fargo’s public school student population. That figure is 28% in West Fargo and 26% in Moorhead.
Fargo Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said his district aims to use restorative practices to help address racial disparities in school discipline. "I have no problem acknowledging we have work to do in this area, and we want to address it head on," Gandhi said.
Fargo Public Schools has a plan to eradicate suspensions and expulsions altogether within five years, Gandhi said.
He’s faced with a problem, however. As the district's enrollment is growing, total suspensions have increased 58% with 488 suspensions in 2014-2015 school year, and 652 suspensions in 2019-2020. During the same time period, out-of-school suspension days increased by 176%, and in-school suspension days increased 48%, according to district figures.
“It’s absolutely something that is worrying,” Gandhi said. “One of the things we’re doing — and this is a big discussion for us — we have a five-year plan. All of our schools are going to be moving toward restorative plans and restorative justice.”
Restorative justice is a theory of justice that focuses on mediation and agreement rather than on punishment.
The district did not release its exact number of expulsions for student privacy reasons. “Any time we share data in that small of a number, we don’t want to list it because we don’t want to identify individual students,” Assistant Superintendent Robert Grosz said.
Policy stipulates that a student can be suspended for up to 10 consecutive days. “Most suspensions are less than that,” Grosz said.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the number of higher-level student infractions has dropped due to distance learning and the lack of students in classrooms, said AnnMarie Campbell, a district spokeswoman.
"We did see a decrease in suspensions during distance learning and expect a decrease in future times of distance learning because students are only participating in instruction remotely," Campbell said. "The remote participation doesn't allow for as much opportunity for some of the highest level of behavior infractions that would warrant a school suspension as a consequence."
As the West Fargo School District’s enrollment grows, in-school and out-of-school suspensions have also been rising. Since the 2014-2015 school year, suspensions have increased from 330 to 454 in the 2019-2020 school year, which is a 37% increase, according to district statistics.
Secondary Assistant Superintendent Allen Burgad said the district began shifting its training six years ago to focus on recognizing the disparity in suspension numbers relative to the diverse student population. They've begun restorative practices, cultural and trauma training, and diversity leadership programs.
"We have also recognized the importance of embedding and teaching the essential social-emotional skills of self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Our classroom teachers and school counselors have created a curriculum that we utilize with all K-12 students to engage in these learning opportunities," Burgad said.
"In addition to the professional development provided for education, we have also shifted our discipline procedures to be a means of intervention and education versus strictly punitive consequences for students."
In the Moorhead School District, enrollment is increasing, and so is the number of disciplinary actions, which have risen from 160 in the 2014-2015 school year to 343 in 2018-2019, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
Across Minnesota during the 2018-2019 school year, students of color, predominantly black children, were expelled or suspended at 3.2 times the rate of their white classmates, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
In 2018-2019, most suspensions in Moorhead stemmed from insubordination and fighting at Horizon Middle School, and fighting, tobacco, alcohol and drug use at Moorhead High School, according to a report from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.
In 2018, the Moorhead School District faced complaints of discrimination, which led to an agreement with the state Department of Human Rights for the district to address racial discrepancies in school discipline. The district must submit semi-annual reports demonstrating its efforts at compliance.
So far, the district reports it has instituted teacher aides to support students, started measuring achievement gaps, has increased the four-year graduation rate for students of color by 10%, and is meeting regularly to review discipline practices, among other accomplishments.
“Systematic improvement takes time to show up in the data, but we are not waiting for that,” the district said in a statement. “Disparity in discipline is not unique to Moorhead Area Public Schools, as academic research shows, nor is it always comparable across states.”
Teachers and staff must expand cultural competency skills, and the district is also building a support system for students who need skills in self-regulation, according to the district's statement.
“Moorhead Area Public Schools continues to prioritize recruiting and retaining a more diverse staff that look like the students they serve,” the statement said.
Mark Altenburg, a former member of the Moorhead School Board, said the situation is made worse not because area people are racist, but because the community does not understand how to work with different races. Unconscious bias needs to be realized and owned, he said.
"We have good, hard-working individuals who don't know how to change this climate. Until the community says 'We need help,' and someone shows us a way forward, I'm afraid 20 years from now it will be the same thing," Altenburg said.
Hukun Dabar, founder of the Afro American Development Association and a Moorhead Human Rights Commission former member, said there isn’t an immediate answer to eliminating the discrepancies.
“Right now the school system is not working for all. It’s not working for people of color,” Dabar said. “We need to be making sure immigrants can get the help that they need. It depends on the school board, that’s where change is needed. They know the results and can see people of color are failing, because they’re not getting the adequate resources that are needed.”
Kawar Farok of the Kurdish American Development Organization said more teachers of color who understand the background and culture of new Americans are needed.
"If you want to deal with the larger racial problem in the country, encourage people of color to be in the education field, to have more people of color teaching in schools,” Farok said.
Matuor Alier, chair of the Fargo Human Relations Commission, once ran for the West Fargo School Board and said the discrepancy in school punishments is close to his heart.
“It’s very frustrating. There is a lack of understanding among the teachers and most of the parents due to the language barrier, and they’re not involved in the children’s education. The parents are relying on the children to understand everything,” Alier said.
He said students are having to translate for their parents, and they don’t always tell the truth. “So they just keep getting in trouble without knowing what they’re doing is wrong,” Alier said.
Farok, who attended Moorhead Area Public Schools, said his nephew, also of Kurdish descent, was recently suspended for one day because a teacher thought his mechanical pencil was a weapon.
“I’m not sure how that was used as a form of weapon,” Farok said. “But when it comes to discipline, it’s almost as if they think they’re required to be harsher.”
In much the same way he’s for reforming the police, Farok said school districts and teachers need to become involved in their communities, especially with new Americans. Teachers, like police, would benefit from spending time face-to-face with families from other countries, he said.
“A problem is that teachers think they know and try to relate when they can’t," Farok said. "Teachers need to be educated just like police officers, too. They can go into our communities in the same fashion, learn about our different cultural backgrounds and how we discipline our kids."