A controversial new policy governing school suspension in Minneapolis has provoked criticism from one of the federal officials it was supposed to appease.
Several weeks ago, Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent Bernadela Johnson announced that the district would be adopting a new policy in which all suspensions of black, Hispanic, or Native American students would require her personal review and approval. White and Asian students would not be subject to the same review.
The intent of the policy is to reduce the current racial disparity in suspensions within the school district, as blacks in particular are vastly more likely to be suspended than their white classmates. Minneapolis has already taken similar measures to cut down on suspensions, such as abolishing the punishment for students in kindergarten or first grade.
Now, however, one federal official is crying foul. Peter Kirsanow, one of eight members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, wrote to the district and described the new suspension policy as “legally and constitutionally suspect.”
Kirsanow expressed particular concern that the policy amounts to a racial quota system, pointing towards the fact that Superintendent Johnson has explicitly said she wants to eliminate the current disparity between white and black suspensions rates by 2018. Because that goal focuses on curbing suspension rates themselves rather than on the behavior that leads to suspensions, Kirsanow says it would be “profoundly naive” to view the new policy as anything other than a quota.
“It teaches [students] that justice is not colorblind and that we do not stand or fall on our individual merit. This profound inequity is the potential constitutional problem with this discipline policy,” writes Kirsanow in his letter. While no evidence currently exists of racial discrimination in the city’s schools, he said, the new policy would inevitably lead to just such a result.
“The idea that MPS will be able to eliminate the racial disparity in discipline by 2018 without either treating black and brown students more leniently or white students more harshly is unrealistic and absurd,” said Kirsanow. To back up his point, he cites existing federal court precedent, such as the Seventh Circuit’s decision in People Who Care v. Rockford Board of Education, in which the court overturned a school district policy that would have prohibited minority students from being punished at higher rates than whites.
Kirsanow’s criticism is telling, as the policy changes were created in response to ongoing federal concern about racial disparities in public school suspensions. Last January, then-Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan collaborated to release guidelines urging schools to scale back their use of suspensions and other harsh punishments, noting that they tend to fall disproportionately on minority students. Minneapolis itself was being investigated by the federal government for its punishment disparities, and the city’s new suspensions policies are a part of the resolution to that investigation.
However, Kirsanow’s opinions do not reflect any change of position by the U.S. government. The Commission on Civil Rights is a bipartisan body, and Kirsanow, a Republican attorney, was appointed to it in 2001 by President George W. Bush. The Commission influences federal policy not through direct action, but instead by investigating and evaluating policies related to civil rights around the country. In the past, the Commission has done things like assess the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education and determine how far the Americans with Disabilities Act should go.
Despite Kirsanow’s criticism, district officials told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that they have no plans to revise the policy, and that Kirsanow had “misrepresent[ed] the information, our plans and our intentions.” They said the new policy’s goal of eliminating racial disparities in no way amounted to a binding quota, and expressed confidence that the full commission would “have a different interpretation of our suspension review.”
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