News 8 Now Investigates: Unlearning racism in the school system

WINONA, Minn. (WKBT)– In the wake of Geroge Floyd’s death, some leaders are considering what they can do to change systemic racism. For the Winona Area Public School District, that question is one they’ve been trying to answer for years.

It started with a state investigation into the use of disciplinary action against students of color but exposed deeper issues within the district.

It was the fall of 2017 when the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found the state was not making the grade. Using public data on disciplinary action, it found a deep divide between students of color and their white peers.

“Black students nationwide are three times more likely to be suspended and expelled. But in Minnesota, they’re eight times more likely,” said Joshua Crosson, executive director for EdAllies. The  Minneapolis-based organization working to advance equity in the Minnesota school system, especially for underserved students and people of color.

Winona Area Public Schools was one of 43 school districts and charter schools identified by the department as having some of the worst disparities.

“Understanding the why really helps us figure out what are the different strategies that we’re going to have to change and implement in order to make a change and difference in that,” said Annette Freiheit, superintendent of Winona Area Public Schools.

In an agreement with the state, the district created a strategic plan to address training, update policies on out of school suspensions and increase state oversight through the 2020-2021 school year. It also created teams to review disciplinary data and make recommendations for system-wide improvements.

“It’s a way for us to measure are we making progress and improving what we’re doing in regards to student behavior,” Freiheit said.

But since the agreement, numbers show little change.

An analysis by News 8 Now found:
During the 2017 to 2018 school year, black students made up 5.88% of the district’s population but received 30.34% of all disciplinary actions, according to public data from the Minnesota Department of Education. During the 2018 to 2019 school year, black students made up 6.41% of the district’s population but received 27.47% of all disciplinary actions.

Through an open records request, News 8 Now looked at the types of incidents that led to disciplinary action. Issues of disruptive behavior/disorderly conduct/insubordination and violence led to the most disciplinary actions. Further analysis shows disciplinary action for these types were repeatedly disproportionate for black students compared to the district’s population. More on the analysis and where this data comes from can be found here.

Disciplinary Action For 2017 2018 School Year (2)Race Ethnicity Demographics For 2017 2018 School Year

Disciplinary Action For 2018 2019 School YearRace Ethnicity Demographics For 2018 2019 School Year

The district admits more needs to be done to address this disparity.

“Absolutely. It will be a continuous project. Continuous,” Freiheit said.

Because if they don’t address it, it becomes an issue bigger than the district.

“It impacts them through their schooling and beyond as adults,” Crosson said.

The effects of suspensions and expulsions are long-lasting.

“They’re pushing people out [through disciplinary action]. Not giving them the proper resources they need to learn. That’s resulting in low highschool graduation rates, low college attendance rates. It’s going to have detrimental impacts on society as a whole,” Crosson said.

Studies have also found a connection between suspensions and being arrested or incarcerated.

“Once a student is involved in the criminal justice system, we know it’s really hard for them to get out of that cycle,” Crosson said.

Freiheit was with a different district when WAPS originally entered the agreement with the state. She took on the position in July 2019 and said she’s been working to understand how the district operates before calling for changes.

But now, the superintendent is working from the top down by ‘Shifting Gears.’ She’s reading this book with district principals to learn more about consequential but restorative action to address the conduct.

“What do we do to help the student improve their behavior?” Freiheit said.

Understanding cultures and other issues may help staff realize how they can use potential issues as a learning opportunity.

“This is where it comes down to equity. We have families who have those skills where they can teach their child that. We have other families who just struggle with all the things that they’re facing. And maybe it’s not a skill that they’re teaching in their family, so how can we help support that,” Freiheit said.

It’s through this lens that they can envision a fairer disciplinary system.

But their work doesn’t end here.

On top of the agreement from the larger state investigation, the district also settled a discrimination charge with the Department of Human Rights earlier this year. In part, it clarifies the role of a police-school liaison officer. And, it requires staff to receive at least an hour of training on responding to student behavior and implicit bias, and a separate one-hour training on anti-discrimination law.

“Which is just the start. In order to have a systemic change, we have to sustain it,” Freiheit said.

They’re planning additional training to help staff learn about cultural differences, understand their biases and ways to work through them. That may include using tools such as the Intercultural Development Inventory.

But it’s not just an issue among staff. A district climate-survey of 5th to 12th-grade students found 76% heard a student use a slur, epithet or other derogatory words toward another student.

“Very sad. Very sad that we are in a culture that feels that that’s ok,” Freiheit said.

As long as its active, the state’s agreement says students need to have at least one hour of training each year on equity, inclusion, recognition of bias, harassment and bullying. The agreement runs through the 2021 to 2022 school year.

Freiheit said these issues exposed by the state are part of a larger, societal system that has to be taken down over time– which they’re running out of.

“We’re going to have to push people’s mindsets and practices to do what’s going to best for our students,” Freiheit said.

That will mean looking inward.

“I’ll be the first to step up to say, ‘I know I have to address my own.’ Cause I’m the lead leader,” Freiheit said.

It may be difficult and call for courage.

“We’re going to have to build a culture of trust and respect in order to be able to call each other out when we say, is that exactly it?” Freiheit said.

Changing a system of discrimination and bias means Freiheit will put herself in other people’s shoes. As a white, middle-class woman, she said she’s committing to listening about others about their experiences and acting to break down barriers that are more than skin deep.

“I’m not going to shy away from the fight. I’m not going to shy away from making the change,” Freiheit said.