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State Department of Human Rights hopes for Bemidji office

BEMIDJI--One of the less talked-about provisions in Gov. Tim Walz's recent state budget proposal would open a Minnesota Department of Human Rights office in Bemidji.

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BEMIDJI-One of the less talked-about provisions in Gov. Tim Walz's recent state budget proposal would open a Minnesota Department of Human Rights office in Bemidji.

The governor's budget recommendation would send an additional $5.1 million to the department over the coming fiscal year and the one after, an increase of more than 50 percent from the combined $8.9 million it's set to receive this year and the year before. If that proposal makes it through the Legislature intact, department staff said they would use $4.2 million of that money to bolster an office in St. Cloud and open new ones in Bemidji, Duluth, Rochester and Worthington.

One of the department's primary tasks is investigating discrimination complaints, and the new offices, according to the department, would act partly as intake centers that might be more personable than calling the department's St. Paul headquarters.

"When folks have had issues with sexual harassment at work or they've had issues of race discrimination with a landlord, sometimes they really want to talk with someone in person," said Scott Beutel, the department's public policy director. "I think particularly for folks who've been marginalized, sometimes being able to have that in-person conversation is really a necessary thing in order to move that process forward in a way they feel comfortable with."

The department also hosts education and outreach programs about discrimination and demographic disparities. Beutel said they have tried to prioritize "going upstream" to work with employers, landlords, and community groups and hope to build relationships with local governments.

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"Being able to have a permanent presence really lets you build those relationships in a way that you just can't otherwise," he said, adding that the decision to open an office in Bemidji was a logistical one designed to cover the north-central part of the state. "The reason we identified these communities was not because the department looked at these communities and said, 'there are problems here'...We looked at the state of Minnesota and said, 'How can we make sure that we're providing geographic coverage for all of Minnesota and have that be accessible?'"

The department asked to expand similarly in 2017, but their proposal didn't make it to then-Gov. Mark Dayton's desk. That year, Dayton's proposed budget only included the new offices in Duluth, Rochester and Worthington.

The state Department of Human Rights made headlines in 2017 when it pushed several school districts across Minnesota to reconsider their discipline practices. In all, the department identified more than 30 districts and charters that suspended or expelled non-white and special education students at a much higher rate than their white or general education classmates.

Bemidji Area Schools is one of those districts, and staff there are waiting for the department to respond to a progress report district staff submitted late last month.

Related Topics: ST. CLOUD
Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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