Aaron Benner, a fourth grade teacher at John A. Johnson elementary school, has been speaking out against St. Paul Public Schools for the past three years. This year, he says he's being forced out of his job.
Benner has been teaching for 20 years, but he says heat started coming down from district officials after he protested the new racial equity policy at a school board meeting last spring.
At the time, he was one of five teachers who said schools were struggling to discipline students. Those who verbally bullied other kids, physically attacked their teachers and peers and routinely ran out of their classrooms at will weren't being reprimanded properly and they definitely weren't being suspended, the teachers argued.
Benner says they were painted as being anti-racial equity for asking for more consequences for serious misbehavior. School let out for summer break, and "immediately with the new school year I could tell there was a target on me."
Benner has had four investigations this year. He was asked to transfer right before winter break. He declined to leave his students, and then school administrators launched another. He declined to go into the specifics of the investigations on record, but says they were all trivial.
With every investigation, he was reprimanded for being an unfit teacher. Yet the school kept putting students struggling with behavior issues in his class, regardless of what grade they were supposed to be in.
Meanwhile, student discipline at John A Johnson has suffered tremendously, Benner says.
One day, students from another class ran in and told him that a white student called a black student the n-word during a guest teacher's lecture. The students were upset, so he had to calm both classes down. Benner spoke to the offending student, who apologized. No administrator came to talk to the kid until the next day, and he stayed in class with the others.
"That was very harmful to the student who said it and it was very harmful to the classroom environment," Benner says. "I didn't want to ostracize the student, but I thought it was a perfect teachable moment."
In mid-December, Benner passed by his students while they studied in a different classroom under another guest teacher from West Africa, and he heard chaos. He walked into the room, and some students complained that a group of kids were telling the guest teacher she had Ebola. He asked if it was true, and six kids raised their hands. He radioed the principal, and she came down with the district assistant superintendent, Andrew Collins. They took over the investigation, and the kids returned to Benner's room half an hour later.
When Benner began to write a referral about the incident, the principal, Lisa Gruenewald, told him to write the names of all the students on one slip. "I did that, thinking in the back of my mind that when I request this data, they better have it," Benner says.
Turns out they didn't. When Benner tried to pull the Ebola incident from school records for parent-teacher conferences about two weeks ago, it didn't exist on paper. The school said they'd investigated thoroughly, but Benner says administrators never interviewed him.
Recalling the Ebola incident, Gruenewald says she spoke to the group of students and to the West African teacher who were involved. She discovered that the initial perception was not actually what happened, so she didn't document the incident.
"We do suspend students for violent activities here," Gruenewald says. "We absolutely do. We have counselors who are working with our students." She says John A Johnson has a "student success room," where students with difficulty behaving are placed to learn social skills.
Gruenewald says her job is to investigate any concerns that parents, students or teachers bring to her, or any misconduct she sees herself. Her investigations of Benner are protocol, she says.
The kids in the Ebola incident admitted wrongdoing and wrote letters of apology to their guest teacher. The teacher emailed to say that later that day, one of the students again called out to her asking if she has Ebola.
Assistant superintendent Collins was not available for an interview, but superintendent Valeria Silva says that while there is a faction of teachers who complain loudly about St. Paul's racial equity policy, the reality is that kids don't learn from suspensions.
"What are you going to do apart from talking to the students, have them write apology letters and explain that's not what they meant and teach them the right thing?" she says. "What else can we do? Throw them out of school? Put them in a facility?"
She says it's important to keep a strict paper trail because the data allows schools to study patterns in what causes students to act out so teachers can provide solutions.
"St. Paul Public Schools today has more social workers, counselors, nurses and librarians than we've ever had since before I was superintendent," Silva says. "We're trying to stretch our dollars as much as we can. There's no hidden money under my desk. Why are we not all teaming up as educators to start talking to our legislators?"
The district's strategic plan to mainstream students who were previously labeled with behavioral or learning disabilities has created new opportunities for bright kids who just needed the extra push, Silva says. She points to one seventh grader who made the transition to the general education program and earned a medal for wrestling after one full year of nearly constant progress despite seemingly insurmountable hardships at home.
"This is a kid we had already lost any hope that he could be in a mainstream classroom," Silva says. The day he got his award, she remembers running outside with him to take pictures. "This poor boy was probably dying of embarrassment, but I never felt more proud as a superintendent. We have changed the life of that child."
The district isn't retaliating against Benner, Silva says. Retaliation would be losing a job, cutting a salary, placing a teacher on leave.
Benner has tenure, but his teaching assistant, Sean Kelly, didn't. He was one week away from graduating his probationary period when he was fired for no reason, he says.
Gruenewald says she can't discuss her reasons for firing an employee, but she did follow all the protocols she needed to follow with HR.
Kelly says his termination on Thursday came out of the blue. He had never had a reprimand of any kind, written or verbal, yet Gruenewald told him on the phone that she and the assistant principal had spoken to him numerous times about missing class throughout the year. He had taken a few sick days for migraines that landed him in the hospital, Kelly says.
Kelly's responsibilities as a teaching assistant were to keep students in the classrooms as much as possible, and tracking them when they left for whatever reason. He'd make copies, help lead reading groups and manage behaviors.
He believes the district fired him in retaliation for backing Benner in his various investigations. Once, Gruenewald called him down to her office to question him about how Benner handled a violent encounter between a pair of students, and he reported Benner had handled the conflict exactly as he should have, by speaking to the kids in private and reporting it to administrators. Kelly says it felt like Gruenewald wanted him to throw Benner under the bus.
"I just feel so bad for those kids, because I know they're really upset that I'm no longer there," Kelly says. "[Benner]'s had to make excuses that I had to get another job. He can't tell the kids I was fired. What keeps running through my head is these kids are being exploited by the district."
On a good day, Kelly says students would just get up and walk around the school while he chased them around. On a bad day, they could punch teachers and teaching assistants in the face and receive no repercussions.
"Myself, I don't think any of the kids could actually do any harm to me by hitting me, but I've been punched and kicked and spit on and called the n-word and every cuss word you could possibly think of," he says.
The way Benner feels, the district is trying to set it up to fire him. "I want people to know this district is ruthless. You speak up about them, they come after you. What are you gonna do? You're just a peon. And who hurts? The students. I'm gonna keep on addressing this because the schools are out of control."
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