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St. Paul Central teacher assault spurs strike talk

"The level of anger has been unbelievable after this assault at Central," says Denise Rodriguez, St. Paul teachers union president.

"The level of anger has been unbelievable after this assault at Central," says Denise Rodriguez, St. Paul teachers union president.

After a Central High School teacher was beaten and choked by a student last week, the St. Paul teachers union has renewed calls to improve safety and school climate. Denise Rodriguez, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, announced this week that she filed a petition for mediation — a move she initially described as a state requirement to “trigger our teachers’ right to strike.”

On Wednesday, Rodriguez said she was hopeful any picket lines can be avoided and that the petition was about bringing the district to the bargaining table.

“Teachers don’t want to walk away from their classrooms,” she said. “But we also need to stop talking about this and start to provide resources and staffing so that our students needs are being met. The level of anger has been unbelievable after this assault at Central.”

On the teachers’ wish list are added social workers, counselors, smaller classes, plus time and money to boost parent engagement.

Como Park Senior High School teacher Roy Magnuson felt a mixture of anger, sadness, and frustration when he got word of the Central violence. But not surprise.

Magnuson’s taught at Como Park for more than 20 years after getting his foot in the door as a football coach in 1979. Social studies and pigskin might be his specialties, but on occasion he’s had to play bouncer. A few years ago he pulled one of his players off another kid he was “pummeling” on the ground.

“If I hadn’t physically intervened, one of the punches was going to physically pound the kid’s head into the floor and then you don’t know what happens after that,” he recalls.

He says violence in St. Paul schools has increased over the years (including a series of fights at Como Park this fall) in part because students don’t perceive the consequences as real. In Ramsey County this year there have been 27 gross misdemeanor assaults on school officials — a 60 percent increase over the previous five-year average, according to the county attorney’s office. On Tuesday, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi called for a task force to deal with school violence.

St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva fired back at the union Wednesday, saying she was “surprised” and “concerned” it sought mediation, as the two sides have been meeting biweekly. She also said that the union's proposals are prohibitively costly.

“I have said this before and I will say it again, violent behavior is not acceptable and I recognize the urgency of acting right now,” she told reporters.