FARGO -- If you're a black, Hispanic or American Indian student, you're much more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than your white peers in North Dakota and Minnesota, according to data from both states' education departments.

In part due to a program aimed at reducing the racial gap in suspensions, Minnesota saw a 20.4 percent decline in all out-of-school suspensions between the 2010-11 and 2013-14 school years, the state's Department of Education reported earlier this year. That included significant decreases in suspensions for blacks (26.8 percent), Hispanics (27.5 percent) and students with disabilities (20.4 percent).

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But suspension rates for students of color remain high compared with their white peers.

Minnesota suspension rates for black students still stood at 24 incidents per 100 for the 2013-14 school year, nearly eight times the 3.3 incidents per 100 for white students, according to the Education Department.

Similarly, American Indian students were removed from classes at a much higher rate than whites: 22.4 incidents per 100 students. Meanwhile, Minnesota students who claim a multi-ethnic heritage were removed from classes more than three times as often as their white peers.

Shire Mohamed, an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow who works with at-risk students at the Red River Area Learning Center in Moorhead, said he ties the disproportion in suspensions not to racism, but to ignorance.

"The teachers that deal with these kids may not be able to understand the cultures and the backgrounds these kids are coming from, and they may not also be able to understand some of the situations they have been and some of the things that might explain the behaviors," he said.

While the differences in North Dakota are not as dramatic, they are still significant, Department of Public Instruction data shows.

American Indian students in North Dakota were removed from classes at a rate of 8.1 incidents per 100 students, and black students at a rate of 8 incidents per 100 during the 2013-14 school year, more than four times the suspension rate of white students. Hispanic students were removed from classes twice as often as white students.

Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota's superintendent of public instruction, said research needs to be done to determine what causes the gap in suspensions between white and minority students.

She said differing cultural views on acceptable school behavior may play a part, and she urged school administrators to consider alternatives to suspensions.

"Prohibiting a student from attending school most often doesn't fix the problem," Baesler wrote in an emailed statement to The Forum. "It often exacerbates the problem by putting them further behind."

It's a sentiment echoed by Mohamed, a 31-year-old Somalian who used to work as an interpreter for West Fargo schools and is now involved with the West Fargo diversity council. He said suspensions of minority students are "not in any way benefitting them, except the school will have time off, will not have to deal with this kid while he's away from school."

Moorhead

Over several years, the Moorhead School District has been instituting a system called Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports to teach students good academic and social behaviors, track incidents and rectify problems.

Administrators at schools using PBIS swear by it, saying it has lowered the number of major behavioral problems.

Overall, the suspension rates for students of color have improved. But a couple of groups are still removed from school much more often than whites.

Suspensions for white students dropped slightly from 2.9 incidents per 100 students in 2010-11 to 2.6 incidents per 100 in 2013-14. Because whites make up the bulk of the student population, that change dropped the district suspensions from about 4.7 to 3.6 per 100 students in that time span.

Black students in Moorhead's public schools had the largest decline in suspensions, from 17.9 incidents per 100 students in 2010-11 to 4 incidents per 100 students in 2013-14, nearly on par with their white peers..

Suspensions for American Indian students plummeted from 18.7 suspensions per 100 in 2010-11 to 10.1 per 100 students in 2012-13, but it popped back up to 14.5 incidents per 100 students in 2013-14--five and a half times the suspensions of white students.

Suspensions for Hispanic students also declined, but they are still removed three times as often as white students.

""It's a national issue, and that's why we have started talking about it in our district," Superintendent Lynne Kovash said. "Is it cultural? Are there barriers we're putting up? Those are the conversations we want to have."

Kovash said an alternative punishment to suspension could involve restorative justice--apologizing, returning stolen items and doing community service.

Also, suspensions for chronically tardy or truant students are counterproductive, she said.

"They're already missing days and you're going to suspend them more days?" Kovash asks.

Fargo

In the Fargo School District, the gap in suspensions between white students and their black, Hispanic and American Indian peers has grown.

During the 2010-11 school year, blacks and Hispanics were suspended four times as often as whites, and American Indians three times as often, state data shows.

By 2013-14, American Indian students were being suspended at a rate of 12.4 incidents per 100 students, about five times as often as white students.

Meanwhile, black students were suspended at a rate of 13.7 incidents per 100 students in 2013-14, five and a half times as often as whites. Hispanic students were suspended four and a half times as often.

Associate Superintendent Bob Grosz was cautious in commenting on the data, saying that principals follow district protocols when it comes to determining punishments, including suspensions from school.

"I think the Fargo public schools implements a process of continuous improvement," Grosz said. "We will continue that process of continuous improvement .. now and into the future."

West Fargo

West Fargo School District suspension data indicates that black students are consistently suspended at higher rates than white students.

In 2010-11, black students were suspended at a rate of nearly 4 incidents per 100 students, rising to 7.4 incidents per 100 in 2013-14. That was seven and a half times the rate of the district's white students..

Similarly, in 2013-14, Hispanic students were suspended at more than five times the rate of white students.

"I do still think that it's a valid observation that there does seem to be a disproportionate suspension of students of color," Superintendent David Flowers said.

Flowers said he wants to improve school discipline reporting in West Fargo. In the meantime, he said the district is working to address cultural misunderstandings. A diversity study council recently met for the first time, he said.

"I believe our school district and our community are on a journey to greater cultural proficiency," he said. "I think it's a journey that we are on as a nation, as a community, and as a school district."

Some initiatives, such as halting bullying, may inflate suspension numbers in the short term, Flowers and Kovash said..

"Sometimes, you have to seemingly get worse before you get better," Flowers said.

Alternate approach

As an AmeriCorps fellow in Moorhead, Mohamed keeps track of about 30 middle and high school students per year. He checks that they're attending school, talks to their teachers and identifies who is at risk of dropping out. He also connects those students with school clubs, service organizations and sports--an approach he said is more effective than suspensions.

"My thinking is that suspending these kids out of the school just adds to the problems and the disadvantages they are already finding themselves in," he said.

Mohamed said suspensions stem from teachers not knowing the trauma some students have been through. For example, when refugee students leave the English Language Learners program and join mainstream classes, teachers are not familiar with their backgrounds.

"They will measure the kids next to the mainstream students," Mohamed said. "That's really unfortunate."

The same problem can exists for students who are from the United States, he said.

"If dad is alcoholic or in prison, for example, this kid is exposed to the same level of violence that a refugee is exposed," he said.

Statistics show that a better way to combat misbehavior is engaging a student in activities.

Maybe a minority student "doesn't want to go to school to begin with" and acts out on purpose, Mohamed said. Figuring out what a student likes to do and connecting him with that club or sport can help.

"I know the opportunities are there in the schools for them, but what I would think is they're not able to take advantage of what the schools are offering to them," he said.