Amicus Brief: Minnesota Courts Must Look to the MHRA to Protect Students
Every student deserves to be treated fairly, and to feel safe and supported at school.
This isn’t just our opinion; the Minnesota Human Rights Act spells out that students are entitled to an education free of gender- or race-based discrimination, and Minnesota courts have consistently agreed.
And yet, these rights are categorically denied to students of color in this state.
As of 2019, Minnesota ranks 50th in the nation when it comes to racial disparities in high school graduation rates. Minnesota students of color are also likely to perform significantly lower on standardized tests (reading and math in particular), are less likely to be taught by an educator reflecting their own racial or ethnic identity (34% students of color v. 5% teachers of color), are more likely to receive disciplinary action (students of color receive two-thirds of all suspensions and expulsions despite representing only one-third of the state’s student population), and more.
For several Black students at Duluth Edison Charter Schools, such disparities went well beyond test scores or data points. They faced years of overt racial hostility, bullying, and discrimination that made going to school every day a miserable experience.
What’s more, their rights were violated under the law in Minnesota.
In a recent MinnPost article, the students and their families describe the harassment they endured, and their subsequent lawsuit against the school. The article also highlighted the history of similar incidents at Duluth Edison Charter Schools, such as this troubling data reported by the Minnesota Department of Education for the 2017-2018 school year:
Black students received some form of a disciplinary action 219 times out of 804 total disciplinary actions, while students of two or more races received 163 disciplinary actions. According to data from the Office of Civil Rights, Black students account for 4 percent of the nearly 1300 student population … while students of two or more races constitute 11 percent.
As an organization committed to intersectionality, we recognize the ways in which race and gender overlap when it comes to discrimination. Studies have found that both Black boys and girls are perceived as older than they are, less “innocent” and more aggressive than their white peers. Similarly, the older people believe a Black child to be, the more likely they are to see the child as “angry.” Taken together, Black students are more likely to be treated as instigators, older students who should know and do better, while white students receive the benefits of forgiveness, if not impunity.
Just take this interaction, from one of the families in the lawsuit:
“In another incident, one student had spit on Hansen’s daughter to the point she needed to change her shirt. Rather than punishing the student who had spit on her, the teacher told Hansen’s daughter to make sure to leave the other student alone when he was angry.”
Freedom from discrimination in school is important because K-12 education is an important foundation in our lives. When students are unnecessarily suspended, expelled, forced to change schools or drop out due to harassment, they lose pace with their peers and face wider disparities in other areas of their lives including subsequent college opportunities, health outcomes, and economic security.
As an organization dedicated to equality for all genders, Gender Justice knows that a hostile environment in school deprives students of educational opportunities to which they are entitled. We also know that gender and racial discrimination are closely entwined, and have to be understood together in order to meaningfully address discrimination experienced by Black students.
Gender Justice was proud to speak up for these students and their families in our amicus brief to the U.S. District Court of Minnesota.
We are committed to ensuring that all of Minnesota’s students are treated fairly at school, and in the proper interpretation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.