BEMIDJI, Minn.-Nine Minnesota schools have formally agreed with the state on a plan to reduce the district's discipline disparities.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights has been pressuring school districts to reconsider their disciplinary practices since fall after noticing non-white students were suspended or expelled at a rate much higher than their white counterparts.

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The batch of nine that reached agreements announced Thursday includes Bemidji, Columbia Heights Public Schools, Hopkins Public Schools, Minnesota Transitions Charter School, Prodeo Academy, Onamia Public Schools, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan/District 196, St. Paul Public Schools and Winona Public Schools.

"I want to thank these educators for their willingness to tackle this issue head-on," Kevin Lindsey, the department's commissioner, said in a statement Thursday, June 28, announcing the slate of agreements. "These leaders should be commended for working to reduce suspension disparities for students with disabilities and students of color while maintaining safe environments for all. These efforts will help build a stronger Minnesota that is ready to embrace the dramatic demographic changes in our near future as our population ages and becomes more diverse."

The agreements follow a March study of five years of discipline data reported by the state's public schools. Lindsey's office found black students statewide are expelled or suspended eight times as often as white students; American Indians are punished 10 times as often.

Further, students with disabilities make up 14 percent of all K-12 students but account for 43 percent of suspensions and expulsions.

Lindsey said one-third of all school exclusions are for such minor incidents as talking back to staff, eye rolling or swearing.

"If we're suspending students ... we're lessening the likelihood of those students succeeding and ultimately graduating," Lindsey said.

At Bemidji Area Schools, about 40 percent of students who are suspended or expelled are American Indian even though they make up about 16 percent of the district's student body.

As an example of a settlement, under a draft plan included in its agreement with the state, Bemidji Area Schools will update and review its student code of conduct, among several other measures. School Board members approved a new code in mid-June that includes a restructured matrix of consequences. The code also now includes references to interventions and supports that can be recommended instead of a suspension or expulsion.

The draft plan also calls for the district to consider and study the circumstances of a referral for discipline: who made it, when they made it, where they made it, which students are being referred and so on.

District staff are also asked to explore a laundry list of education techniques including "restorative justice," which emphasizes building relationships and mediation over more traditional discipline.

Bemidji Area Schools is required to submit a final plan to even out discipline rates by Oct. 1, and report on its progress to the human rights department every February and September thereafter through 2021.

The human rights department last fall warned 34 school districts and nine charter schools in Minnesota about their discipline rates. Ten entered into agreements to work on them in late April.

St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this report