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Moorhead addresses racial disparities in student discipline

Brandon Lunak

MOORHEAD — The Moorhead School District is taking action as required by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights after it found the school was disproportionately suspending minority students.

Superintendent Brandon Lunak said the changes stem from data the department analyzed from the 2015-16 school year that revealed race plays a big factor in the district when it comes to suspensions.

"We'll take responsibility for being where we are and alway looking for ways to improve," he said, "It should in the long run help us to better serve not just these families of different ethnic backgrounds, such as Native American and African-American, this should help us bring attention to how we can improve the experience of all students."

Lunak said in recent memory there has not been a single student expulsion in the district, so disciplinary actions strictly involve suspension because, Lunak said, the district does everything it can to keep kids in school.

That will be the goal with forming an advisory committee and entering into an agreement with the department to comply with requirements and report what discipline the district does take.

Lunak said the agreement ends Sept. 1, 2021, and the department could take legal action against the district during that time if it finds Moorhead did not comply with requirements.

In February, concerned parents and a former student complained to the Moorhead School Board that the district was inattentive to minority students. At that time, the department was threatening Moorhead with a lawsuit, but instead reached an agreement to address racial disparities in student discipline. Ten other districts in state also reached agreement with the department to address the same issue.

Moorhead has yet to decide who will serve on the committee, but Lunak said it will be led by the district's executive director of human resources and operations Kristin Behmer. Committee members will be charged with reviewing the district's disciplinary actions on a quarterly basis.

The department requires Moorhead to submit a semi-annual report to see how the district is doing and if it is reaching intended outcomes. The first semi-annual report is due February 2019.

Potential recommendations on policies and procedures to help support the reduction of suspensions and avoid expulsions are other responsibilities of the committee. Lunak said areas of training include bullying, trauma, implicit bias, cultural competency, and early identification.

Lunak said that the data reviewed by the department doesn't show "repeat offenders," so one African-American of American Indian student could be listed eight times. He said training in early identification will help the district find those multiple offenders to get to the bottom of why there are repeat incidents.

Required changes and reporting will make Moorhead "more intentional and deliberate in terms of keeping kids in school," Lunak said.

"Overall the goal is to improve education for all students," he said. "If this is the vehicle that helps us do that and helps us keep all kids in school, then I think that's a victory."

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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