ST. PAUL, Minn. – A new majority took control of the St. Paul school board earlier this week, and the members want quick change.
They made that clear by giving embattled Superintendent Valeria Silva a list of topics to quickly address, starting with student discipline and school safety.
Amazingly, Silva seemed stunned and angered by the demands.
“I’m not upset about the (agenda) … but the reality is I don’t like surprises,” she was quoted as saying by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
It’s hard to imagine how Silva could be surprised.
The district has been cursed in recent years by a growing number of student disciplinary issues, which have included an increasing number of student assaults on teachers and other staff members.
In one week in October, several teachers were injured when trying to stop an outbreak of fights between students, a student was found with a gun in his backpack, and a student was tased by a school resource officer after disrupting a classroom and repeatedly refusing to leave.
The situation boiled over last month, when a 16-year-old student assaulted and severely injured a high school teacher who was trying to break up a fight.
The St. Paul teachers union reacted to that incident by suggesting it may strike if administrators fail to improve safety for teachers and other staff members.
One teacher was quoted across the nation, after she anonymously told a St. Paul columnist that “we’re afraid.”
Many blame the district’s consulting relationship with the Pacific Educational Group, a radical San Francisco company that contracts with public schools around the nation to address “white privilege.”
PEG officials believe most schools are operated for the primary benefit of white students, based on white cultural norms. As a result, they believe black and other minority students are shortchanged.
According to media reports and statements from various teachers, PEG played a leading role in the development and implementation of a more relaxed disciplinary approach toward black students in St. Paul, with an emphasis on reducing the number of suspensions.
Many say that new approach has gone off the deep end, with many black students getting off the hook for violent or unruly behavior. The result, they say, has been a state of chaos and fear in many of the district’s schools.
Many people in the community say the school administration invites the problems with weak disciplinary policies.
For instance, the district no longer punishes students for willful disobedience, according to the Pioneer Press.
Jackie Turner, the district’s chief engagement officer, said students with behavior problems sometimes are moved to different classrooms or other schools within the district, according to the newspaper.
When asked about expelling students for fighting, Turner said, “You’re not going to hear that from me, you’re not going to hear that from the superintendent, you’re not going to hear that from any of the administrators.”
Instead, Turner told the media that the district would focus on “how to appropriately de-escalate situations.” She shifted the blame from students, saying some fights may not have escalated “if some of the adults would have reacted differently.”
Many observers find that sort of response outrageous and unacceptable.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Dave Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, was quoted as saying in October, following the outbreak of student violence. “The policies that this district leadership are working under — their system on dealing with misbehavior and criminal behavior — have clearly, clearly failed.”
Concern over the dangerous environment in the schools led to the election of four new school board members in November. They were chosen to replace board members who had supported Silva and her unique approach to student discipline.
On Tuesday they had their first meeting, and asked the superintendent to come up with plans to quickly address the discipline and safety issue, as well as increasing student achievement and enrollment.
The board members want to see Silva’s strategy for improving school safety by February, following by least two public input sessions, the Pioneer Press reported.
New board member Jon Schumacher, who was chosen as chairman of the school board ate the meeting, said there’s no time to waste.
“The sense of urgency is out in the public. Having this at this meeting sends the message that we’re taking it seriously, all of us,” he was quoted as saying by the Pioneer Press.
While the community and new board members clearly want quick action, Silva said that may not be possible in the short term, due to budget constraints and current collective bargaining negotiations with the teachers union.
She told the board that she already had an 18-month plan to deal with the problems, according to the newspaper.
“You are Type A, like me,” Silva was quoted as telling one board member at the meeting. “I want it done, but the reality is sometimes we’ve got to take time to process.”