With wildly escalating violence in some St. Paul public schools in recent months, teachers are desperate to find a way to keep students and staff safe without losing misbehaving kids to the criminal justice system.
In late September, separate brawls involving dozens of students broke out at Como Park Senior High School and Humboldt Senior High School. Several students were arrested. The next month, a Harding Senior High School student brought a loaded gun to class. The student, who pleaded guilty to a felony weapons charge, said he brought the gun for self-protection against rival gang members. On Dec. 4, a Central High School student beat up a teacher trying to break up a fight while his brother punched the assistant principal. The teacher suffered a traumatic brain injury, and the kids are facing assault charges. Five days after that, a 13-year-old girl at Journeys Secondary School punched a staff member in the face and was charged with felony theft and misdemeanor assault.
St. Paul Public School officials responded by creating a new committee at the district level to study school safety for a year. They offered no additional staff or resources for individual schools.
“That was really a huge point of frustration because we knew there’s been so many concerns about school safety and climate right now, and we just don’t have the time to study this for a year,” says Nick Faber, vice president of the St. Paul teachers union.
Teachers throughout the district say they are daily kicked, punched, and cussed out by students who face no consequences, which leads to more serious clashes down the line. They say the climate in some schools has become increasingly unsafe since Valeria Silva became superintendent in 2009.
At the time, Silva championed a drastic overhaul of the old punish-and-suspend model of student discipline, which kept kids out of school and buttressed the school-to-prison pipeline. But instead of replacing it with meaningful mediation or counseling for students facing hardship at home, Silva implemented Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, colloquially known in the education world as “rewards for bad behavior.”
Kids who were violent or disruptive to teachers or other students were simply spoken to for 10 minutes at a time, then returned to class with pats on the back.
Now, St. Paul’s teacher union wants $100,000 for each school struggling with violence and disorder to switch over to a “restorative justice” model. Under restorative justice, if a kid punches another kid, they two would have a designated room to sit together with parents and staff to excavate the root of their conflict. Next, they would come with up with a plan for the kids to make things right between them.
The St. Paul teachers’ proposal was put forth back in May, but district leaders have been largely unresponsive to it. They asked that the union release one full-time employee to study school safety alongside district bureaucrats.
“We’re still negotiating, which is part of our frustration,” Faber says. “We want restorative justice to actually happen, and that requires proper funding and personnel to make it work. We also need ownership by folks at each site … and we feel it should be built ground up. The district hasn’t responded to that.”