Dr. Bernadeia Johnson is superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools. Since July 2010, she has led Minnesota’s third-largest school district, which serves over 35,000 students.

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For generations, Minnesotans have regarded our public education system as one of the nation’s best. With state investment in education near the national average, Minnesota’s students are among the most college-ready in the nation. But for generations, we have failed our students of color. The achievement gaps between Minnesota’s white students and its black and Hispanic students are among the highest nationally. In Minneapolis, a low-income black student is six times more likely than a white student to be suspended for at least one day in a school year.

That discipline gap has major implications for students’ academic success — when children aren’t in school, they can’t learn. That’s why I have begun implementing significant changes to how we discipline students in Minneapolis. Those changes have received national attention, and while many parents and educators support the new policies, some have accused me of discriminating against our white students. That could not be further from the truth.

This school year, I imposed a moratorium on suspensions for students in first grade and younger for nonviolent behavior – where the racial disparity in discipline begins. Then this month, I announced that I and my leadership team will review cases in which a suspended student receives a harsher punishment than those of other races. My goal is to eliminate the suspension gap by 2018.

The problem of racial disparities in school discipline doesn’t affect Minneapolis alone. Nationwide, black and white children suffer different consequences for their behavior as soon as they begin school. Black students are just 18 percent of all preschoolers, but they are 48 percent of preschoolers with more than one out-of-school suspension. Minority students do not misbehave more than their white peers; they are disciplined more severely for the same behaviors. For example, a study of North Carolina schools found that discipline gaps exist for various infractions: for dress-code violations, black students were suspended at a rate six times higher than white students; for cellphone use, it was eight times higher; for displays of affection, 10 times higher; and for disruptive behavior, it was double. That systemic racism cannot continue.

I saw this play out in my district recently. In one instance, some playful jabs between two friends in the schoolyard escalated into a real fight. The ninth-graders clearly were out of line, but neither was hurt and property wasn’t damaged. Yet, the boys were suspended. In a separate incident at another school, one of our middle school students became upset over an incident and kicked in a door. Educators at the school dismissed the incident: “Oh, he’s just a precocious kid who made an impulsive choice.”

In the first case, the students were black. In the latter case, the boy was white. Certainly, these are different incidents, involving different students, in different schools. But they are examples of how race can influence how students are disciplined.

In Minneapolis Public Schools, our new model for managing behavior and keeping students in the classroom includes three components: a new behavior standards policy, a new approach to discipline and a new examination of racial disparities in suspensions districtwide.

Last December, we adopted the new behavior standards, which provide educators with a list of alternatives to suspension — such as detention, creating personal behavior intervention plans, or modifying instruction — and trained them to implement the new policy. Then we ended suspensions for the youngest students for nonviolent infractions. In early grades, children are adapting to the rules of a structured learning environment, and suspensions may have a particularly negative effect on their future academic achievement and behavior. Research shows that with each suspension, a student becomes more likely to drop out of school and to be arrested.

Already, these changes have had a positive effect across our district. Suspensions — both in-school and out-of-school — combined with referrals (teacher requests for outside help for misbehaving children) have dropped by almost half compared to this time last year. But we still have much work to do. Minneapolis schools still suspend 10 black students for every one white student, for the same types of infractions. The inequities exist not in student behavior, but in adult response.

That is why I have started the process of a more systematic review. When a student is receiving a more severe punishment than those of other races, it will be addressed. While these reviews encompasses all students, our data does show a disproportionate impact on our black, Hispanic and Native American students. My goal is not to let kids off the hook; this approach will help our district understand more deeply why discipline disparities exist so we can fix them and provide the best support to educators, students and families. We will assess how the school is supporting the individual needs of students and possibly appoint a support team to help instructors at that school to develop strategies to better address disciplinary issues or provide teacher training. Despite an educator’s best intentions, a discipline decision may be unintentionally biased. In those cases, we may expunge the affected student’s record and provide compensatory education to make up for lost instructional time. But I expect that, simply because we are now talking about the discipline gap in Minneapolis schools, that disparity will begin to shrink. Our teachers and principals now are more aware of racial disparities in discipline and are thinking about them when they mete out punishments. They also are more aware of alternatives to suspension, which is helping keep students of all races in school.

To close the achievement gap between white and minority students, our district must drastically change its approach to discipline. Imposing different punishments for the same behavior based on students’ race is the very definition of discrimination. In Minneapolis, we will no longer maintain the status quo. Our new discipline policies do not put white students at a disadvantage simply by addressing unfair discipline for students of color. Focusing our efforts on improving the school experience for students whom our system has failed does not require us to neglect students for whom the system is succeeding. If we are to improve our nation’s future, we must change the academic trajectory for black and brown students. This is urgent work, here and nationwide. As an educator who fervently believes in the potential of every child, I cannot perpetuate this deep, damaging inequity. For generations, we have failed our students of color. We cannot afford to let another generation fall short.

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