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Vast differences in the degrees to which students are being disciplined in St. Paul Public Schools led to a call this week to do away with suspensions altogether.

Movement toward a "no-suspension policy" was urged by a committee charged with recommending ways to tackle inequities in the state's second-largest district.

"It's bold, but it's possible," William Hill, restorative practices coordinator at Central High School, told school board members during an equity committee presentation Tuesday.

St. Paul was one of dozens of districts and charter schools flagged by the state Department of Human Rights in 2018 for the disproportionate percentages of minority and special-education students being disciplined. Agreements followed that require the school systems to take corrective action and provide semiannual reports on their progress.

In its most recent report covering the third quarter of the 2019-20 school year, St. Paul said 72% of students who were suspended were Black and 8% were white. Black students make up about a quarter of the district's student population. Of the 637 suspensions recorded that quarter, 181 stemmed from fighting and 66 from "severe disruptive behavior," the report states.

The drive to find alternatives to bouncing students from class is not new. Former St. Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva's administration stressed that kids couldn't learn if they weren't in school — prompting critics to say some students were getting a pass for problem behavior.

On Tuesday, Hill said: "It is our experience that behaviors of students of color are chronically mislabeled."

The committee is recommending that the district study alternatives to suspensions and create a task force to gather data on how suspensions affect the community. The task force also would rally support for a no-suspension policy.

Hill said teachers who are considered effective at addressing student behaviors also should be identified to serve as models for those contributing to the disproportionate discipline numbers. Schools must have the courage to say to those educators who continue to struggle: "This might not be the district for you," he said.

Superintendent Joe Gothard, asked how quickly he might be able to enact the committee's recommendations, said he would review and prioritize them according to the district's strategic plan and its agreement with the human rights department.

The school board created the equity committee two years ago and asked it to identify disparities in the district and come up with "adaptive and actionable recommendations" to address inequities.

The committee also is recommending that the district make special-education materials more accessible for non-English speakers and that it develop ways to recruit and retain more teachers of color, among other goals.

"The people have spoken," Myla Pope, assistant director of the district's Office of Equity, told the board. "We need to move into action."

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109