ST. PAUL, Minn. – Aaron Benner was teaching in the St. Paul school district a few years ago, when officials started adopting softer disciplinary policies to reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions for black students.
And now, as a former teacher who fled to a local charter school, Benner was disappointed to learn that the district is going to battle its safety problem with another dose of non-punitive “restorative justice” and “relationship-building” programs, designed to curb what school officials view as “white privilege” in disciplinary matters.
Details of the new initiative were specified in a new collective bargaining agreement between the district and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, which gained final approval last week.
“Their signature project is a three-year, $4.5 million investment in restorative practices, which replace punitive measures with systems that promote relationship-building,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
For Benner, the new contract falls well short of addressing the safety issue, or giving at-risk black kids the kind of structure and discipline they need to prepare for the adult world.
“There is still violence in the schools and it’s escalating,” Benner, who is black, told EAGnews. ”Students are going to be unemployable if we don’t do something. Police don’t ‘talk it out’ when someone commits a crime. They arrest people.”
The nightmare continues
The St. Paul school district had 44 assaults involving students as of Feb. 24, which already surpasses last year’s total of 41, according to the Pioneer Press.
Several of those assaults victimized teachers. At least two of those teachers were hospitalized due to injuries they suffered at the hands of students.
John Ekblad, a high school teacher, suffered a brain injury when he was assaulted by a student in December. Earlier this month, Mark Rawlings, another high school teacher, suffered a concussion when he was attacked by two students.
And the nightmare continues.
Late last week the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a story that said, “Police are investigating yet another attack on a teacher by a student in the St. Paul school district.
“On Thursday, 63-year-old substitute teacher Candice Egan repeatedly asked her class of seventh-graders to put their cellphones away at The Creative Arts High School on Kellogg Boulevard, and the Pioneer Press reports a male student attacked her when she took his phone from him.
“She told the newspaper the student ‘slammed me backwards very forcefully’ several times during the incident, adding: ‘I was really scared.’”
“The district told her ‘you wouldn’t have been beaten up if you didn’t try to reach for his cell phone,’” Benner said.
Despite all of that, the new disciplinary approach outlined in the union contract still seems focused on reducing suspensions for black students (racial equity) rather than imposing hard penalties on any student who engages in violent behavior.
“Now it’s time for all of us to continue to put St. Paul students first, setting priorities that directly address racial equity and school climate,” St. Paul Federation Teachers president Denise Rodriguez was quoted as saying by the Pioneer Press.
That sounds like more of the same.
“Since 2010, the district has spent almost $2 million on ‘white privilege’ and ‘cultural competency’ training for teachers,” Katherine Kersten, a senior policy fellow at the Center for the American Experiment, recently wrote about St. Paul schools. “In addition, it has shelled out millions of dollars for ‘positive behavior’ training, an anti-suspension behavior modification program.
“Despite these efforts, the district’s racial discipline gap has remained stubbornly wide. So several years ago, St. Paul school leaders adopted what must have seemed a foolproof way to eliminate statistical disparities. They lowered behavior standards and, in many cases, essentially abandoned meaningful penalties.
“District leaders have repeatedly denied that the escalating violence and disorder are connected with disciplinary changes. But Dave Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, rejects this as ‘ridiculous.’
“The policies that this district leadership are working under — their system on dealing with misbehavior and criminal behavior — have clearly, clearly failed,” he told the Pioneer Press.
‘It’s a total joke’
Despite frequent public complaints from teachers about the lack of student discipline, Benner said he was not shocked when they approved the new union contact, which includes a two percent raise retroactive to January, and another two percent raise starting in July.
“I know for a fact (many) are upset about the new contact, but they got a raise,” said Benner, who taught in the St. Paul district 14 years before accepting an administrative position at Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul last year. “There’s was no way they were going to vote that down.”
Benner said the union’s willingness to go along with more soft disciplinary tactics is even less surprising. As part of the deal, the district will hire 30 new social workers, nurses, counselors, school psychologists and English teachers.
The new employees will be dues-paying union members, Benner noted.
“The union is corrupt, plain and simple,” Benner said. “They used the recent violence in St. Paul schools as leverage to get what they wanted in contract negotiations. They basically wanted more members for union dues. It’s a total joke.”
Benner noted that the union threatened to strike a few months ago over violence toward teachers, but never insisted that the district take a tough approach to guarantee teacher safety.
“Come on, if you wanted to strike, you could have done it two years ago when nine teachers left one school (due to fear) within two weeks of each other,” Benner said about the union. “It’s a sham. It’s a racket.”
Benner said he was very disappointed in the role of the new school board, which includes four new members who were elected last year after promising to address violence in the schools.
Benner was a candidate for the school board, but withdrew before the election due to his work responsibilities in his new job.
“I’m disappointed in the new school board,” Benner said. “I’m so glad I pulled out. It would have been a waste of my time if I would have won. These policies in place are to the detriment of black children. It’s ridiculous.”
‘Ruining the lives of students’
Benner and many others have been critical of the external influences that have prompted St. Paul administrators to pursue ineffective disciplinary policies.
Pressure came from the Obama administration, which has been pressing schools around the nation to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions of black students, regardless of behavior. The administration has threatened to withhold millions of dollars in aid to school districts that fail to cooperate.
“When I first started publicly complaining about all of this in 2011, I heard about Obama’s role and I said ‘what?’” Benner said. “Then I received an email from someone in the federal government who works on civil rights. He said he applauded my efforts, but I was wasting my breath, because the current administration is pushing to decrease suspensions by any means necessary.”
That put St. Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva and other district officials in a difficult position, Benner said.
“In a way I understand where the superintendent is coming from, because she wants to keep the money from the federal government,” Benner said. “But at the same time it’s ruining the lives of students who need discipline.”
Many observers, including Benner, have also been critical of the role played by the Pacific Educational Group, a California-based consulting firm that believes American schools are biased in favor of white students (aka white privilege).
The St. Paul district works with PEG on a contractual basis.
“PEG’s curriculum and the Saint Paul School district’s initiatives are hurting our students,” Chong Thao, a teacher at Como Park High School, wrote to TCDailyPlanet.net in 2014. “PEG teaches that students are victims and teachers are oppressors.
“Instead of offering solutions, especially pragmatic solutions, the district’s initiatives – under PEG’s guidance – do nothing but create an atmosphere of fear rather than optimism, blame rather than personal responsibility, and division rather than unity.”
Benner is supportive of a proposed state law that would make expulsion mandatory for any student who attacks a teacher. The bill was debated last week in a Minnesota state Senate committee, but faced “fierce opposition” from majority Democrats, according to Minnesota.CBSLocal.com.
“I heard about this bill and I’m completely shocked that anyone would oppose this bill,” Benner said.