When Aaron Benner taught fourth grade at John A. Johnson Elementary in St. Paul, he never had the time or the support necessary to coach kids with extra needs while trying to teach the rest of his class.
But the kids liked him, so administrators would send challenging students of any grade to Benner’s class when they acted out.
“Sometimes, they would come to me and they’d be very upset, and I’d be talking to them and I’d get struck,” Benner says. He’s been cussed out, spit on, punched.
But should those elementary kids get expelled for violence?
“There’s no way in hell I’d want those kids to be expelled,” Benner says. “But there’s gotta be a consequence, because otherwise this child is just learning that he can hit an adult, a teacher, with no consequences.”
Benner is now the African American liaison at Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul.
This very tiny bill defines “assault” as causing fear of bodily harm or actual harm. It makes no mention of what should be done if a student assaults another student, or the degree of assault, or the age of the student doing the assaulting.
Teachers whom this bill is meant to protect, who have witnessed these assaults or have been attacked themselves, say Brown is going too far.
St. Paul Public Schools has the option of expelling students. In years past, it was used primarily for kids who brought dangerous weapons to school or had severely beaten a fellow student or teacher. Students who are expelled are able to apply to a different district, and that district must accept them. After a year, they have the option of transferring back to their original schools.
Since Superintendent Valeria Silva came on board, however, the district had an effective moratorium on suspensions and expulsions. Silva closed learning centers for special needs students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, and didn’t support mainstream classroom teachers with kids whose individually customized education plans called for more attention.
The result: zero consequences in St. Paul Schools, which hurts kids just as much as zero tolerance.
“When I heard this bill was being proposed, I was like, 'What? I don’t get this,'” Benner says. “But [St. Paul Public Schools], they have created this mess. The first expulsion they had in five years was the Asian boy who brought a loaded gun to Harding. So he was expelled, and immediately I thought, ‘Wow, he’s a sacrificial lamb.’”
In the most recent assault on a St. Paul teacher, 63-year-old Candice Egan was substituting for a class at the Creative Arts School on Tuesday when she was repeatedly shoved by a student who was angry that she had taken his phone away in class.
"Give me back my phone, you motherfucking bitch," the student told Egan, pushing her in the chest. Egan tried to use a classroom phone to dial the principal's office, but the student kept ending the call. Egan couldn't leave to get help from another teacher – she never leaves her students unattended.
Finally, a female student in the class ran to get help.
If Senator Brown's bill were law, the student who shoved Egan would have been expelled by now. Egan doesn't want that.
"No matter how hurt and sad and shocked I was, there's no way that I would want to be responsible for a 13-year-old being expelled," she says. "School is really the place they need to be to get an education and have a good future, and where they should be able to get real, true counseling. I believe that kids who hit were probably hit themselves. There are some really difficult lives that kids are leading, and I just think that just kicking him out, it could ruin his future. And I think he's a smart kid."
Most teachers, Egan says, tend to be passionately liberal, and believe in taking care of children. "I just don't like it," she says of zero tolerance expulsion. "I think it's wrong."
The student who assaulted Egan – as far as she could tell – was white. The girl who left to get help for Egan was African American.
It doesn’t fit the narrative of St. Paul critics who shouted down teachers at last Wednesday’s board meeting, blaming the violence throughout the district on racist white teachers and their inability to connect with students of color.
For one, the assumption wrongly presupposes that it’s always students of color who are doing the assaulting. Moreover, teachers aren’t the only ones being targeted. More often than not, they’re getting hurt while trying to break up a fight.
Como Park veteran teacher Roy Magnuson recalls that back in 2014, he left his classroom at the end of the day to find a ninth-grade football player on his knees in the hallway, pummeling an 11th grader in the head while the older boy curled up on the floor, trying to defend himself.
Magnuson didn’t ask the ninth grader to stop doing that. He stepped in, grabbed the boy, and lifted him off. In the course of the scrum, the student stomped on Magnuson’s foot.
Should the student have been expelled for beating another kid half to death? Yeah, Magnuson says. Should he have been expelled for stepping on a teacher’s foot? Probably not.
Senator Brown’s bill doesn’t provide for that difference. And it doesn’t touch on what happens in smaller towns, where an expelled child may have no other school to attend.
“I don’t think you put it into a bill that’s a one-size-fits-all,” Magnuson says.
As far as St. Paul’s teachers go, their original plea to the school board in 2013 was for more staff support in their classrooms, more resources for kids who are struggling, and meaningful consequences to teach all students that violence is not OK.
“I would be for a bill that says expulsion would certainly be one of the absolute things that is considered seriously anytime there is a serious assault,” Magnuson says. “We have gone from zero-tolerance to zero-deterrence, and I think it’s safe to say that in St. Paul and Minneapolis, the behavior has gotten significantly worse. There’s a long ways between those two.”
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