Teachers, parents believe suspended teacher Theo Olson got a raw deal
Roy Magnuson, Como Park teacher, wears an "I support Theo" button as he denounces the St. Paul Public Schools' tendency to retaliate against staff who speak out against violence in schools.
Last week, Como Park High School special education teacher Theo Olson incurred the wrath of Black Lives Matter St. Paul when he took to Facebook to vent his frustrations about violence and drugs in school.
Though Olson’s postings targeted the misbehavior of a small number of unidentified students, BLM St. Paul’s Rashad Turner accused Olson of making derogatory generalizations about all black kids. Turner threatened to “shut down” Como Park unless Olson was fired, though he later ditched protest plans after a closed-door meeting with St. Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva.
The Facebook posts that got Theo Olson in trouble with Rashad Turner.
Olson was told Wednesday that he was being placed on administrative leave pending a district investigation. The same day, technology teacher Mark Rawlings tumbled out into the hallway, locked in a fight with two students. The final few moments of the altercation were captured on video.
The Star Tribune reports that the two students were not in Rawlings’ class, but entered his room in the middle of a lesson to go after one of Rawlings’ kids over a pot deal gone bad. Rawlings tried to kick the two students out. One punched him on the chin. Another hit him in the eye. The hallway video shows Rawlings struggling with one student in a headlock before he was thrown on the ground.
The teacher suffered a concussion when he hit his head. Both students were charged with felony assault.
Friday afternoon, about 60 teachers and parents gathered at Gabe’s by the Park in a heavy-hearted show of support for Theo Olson and Mark Rawlings. While some commiserated about how St. Paul Schools’ failure to mediate everyday misbehavior has snowballed into larger brawls and assaults that ultimately landed many students in the criminal justice system this year, others said they were afraid to speak out about discipline problems at all for fear they’d lose their jobs.
George Thawmoo and Jane Sommerville are parents of Karen students who attend Como Park. Over the past couple years, her children have been picked on and their friends have been beaten up, Sommerville says.
“The teachers at Como are outstanding, and for a long time they have not felt free to speak up and defend students’ rights,” she says. “When Theo posted his post, he was expressing his frustration with St. Paul Public Schools. I could see a lot of people were misconstruing what he said, and I stand for the heart of what he posted, that school climate is a major issue in St. Paul Public Schools and it is not being addressed.”
JoAnn Nathan, a retired Randolph Heights special education teacher and a friend of Olson’s, says Olson has always been a loving and dedicated teacher. “He meant to say there just isn’t enough support from the school district and administration. There aren’t the social workers, the counselors, the support staff, or a discipline policy that is effective for schools.”
Angel Thomas, a teacher at Linwood Monroe arts school, doesn’t know Olson personally. But when she read his controversial Facebook posts, she felt that he had his students’ best interests at heart.
“He wants what’s best for our students, and what’s happening right now in St. Paul Public Schools with the climate, the discipline, it’s setting our students up to fail,” Thomas says. “Teachers who care are the teachers who complain. The teachers who do not care, they’re the ones who just let it happen.”
“I definitely support the students, and I don’t support for a minute that a teacher can be removed from a classroom because a few individuals don’t like the opinion of that teacher. It’s a sad day for students and teachers.”
A petition started circulating Friday calling for Superintendent Valeria Silva to resign for diminishing expectations for kids of color, and expanding classroom sizes without providing teachers with enough support to teach and protect their students. There are currently more than 100 signatures.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.