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Katherine Kersten responds to Comm. Cassellius’s Counterpoint in today’s Star Tribune

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius is the latest to weigh in with a Star Tribune counterpoint denouncing my recent op-ed, “Undisciplined: Chaos may be coming to Minnesota classrooms, by decree.” Like other counterpoint authors, she refuses to engage me on the facts or to use logical argument to expose supposed fallacies in my work.

Instead, she demands imperiously that my voice be silenced, on grounds that I am a “flat-out racist”—i.e., someone who dares to disagree with her about school discipline policies.

Cassellius attempts to bully the Star Tribune into no longer publishing my work, so the people of Minnesota can’t read it. (Apparently, they can’t be trusted with such dangerous ideas.) The newspaper, she declares, “inflames” “fearmongering and racial resentments” when it gives my “divisive and hateful words column inches and oxygen.”

Don’t Minnesotans find such an authoritarian mindset troubling in a senior state government official—and our state’s education commissioner, to boot? With the example of public leaders like her, it’s no wonder that in a recent Brookings Institution poll, 51 percent of college students surveyed agreed it is acceptable to shout down a speaker one disagrees with.

The fact is, in Cassellius’s world—and increasingly that of America’s emboldened Left—tolerance may get lip service, but dissent (especially on matters of race) is strictly verboten.

In her counterpoint, our education commissioner accuses me of “reckless,” “straw-man” arguments, without providing evidence of this. At the same time, she fails to comment on—or even acknowledge—the detailed examples I give of public schools (St. Paul and Syracuse, New York), where discipline policies like those she presumably recommends have led to violence and a chaotic learning environment.

Here’s my quick take on Cassellius’s objections to my op-ed, which describes the Minnesota Department of Human Rights’ (MDHR) campaign to impose race-based discipline policies on 43 unnamed school districts and charter schools across our state:

1. Cassellius claims that I say parents and community members can’t access school discipline data. Untrue—I say that parents in targeted school districts won’t be able to “examine the data that allegedly expose their teachers as racists” because the MDHR is keeping the identity of targeted districts a secret. Concerned citizens won’t know what the “tripwire” for investigation is in terms of racial disproportion, or be able to give their opinion on the changes MDHR is demanding, until the new discipline policy the state is foisting on their district is a done deal.

2. Cassellius takes me to task for “ignoring” the fact that MDHR’s race-based discipline campaign focuses on “subjective” infractions—such as “talking loudly or disruptive behavior for which students of color are treated more harshly than their white peers.” (What evidence does she have that some students are treated more harshly than others, beyond the racially disproportionate numbers themselves?)

Cassellius provides no information on why MDHR chose to focus on subjective infractions. But MDHR Commissioner Kevin Lindsey recently told MinnPost that “subjective” offenses include “things like bullying, disruptive/disorderly conduct, verbal abuse, other, attendance [attendance?!!], threats and intimidation.” For the 2015-16 school year, MDHR found that 55 percent of all suspensions and expulsions statewide fell into these “subjective” categories, he said.

So here’s a question for both Cassellius and Lindsey: What was the racial breakdown of infractions in “objective” categories, which presumably include behaviors such as gang activity, fighting, possession of weapons, etc.? Did black and Native American students engage in such conduct disproportionately? If so, we should expect the same when it comes to “subjective” categories of misconduct, though Cassellius and MDHR portray those disparities as evidence of racial bias.

3. Cassellius says it’s “a disturbing reality” that “students with disabilities make up about 50 percent of all our suspensions.” She chides me for not mentioning this fact. Perhaps she expects readers to view “disabled” students’ disproportionate involvement in discipline as evidence of bias, since the term suggests dyslexia, blindness or similar impediments to learning.

In fact, students with disabilities include those with “emotional and behavioral” (EBD) disorders. Among these are students who exhibit “physically or verbally abusive behavior,” “impulsive or violent, destructive, or intimidating behavior” and/or “behaviors that are threatening to others or excessively antagonistic,” according to the Minnesota Department of Education. (The department seems intent on “medicalizing” bad behavior, thereby eliminating the student’s responsibility for it.)

Violent, destructive, and abusive students are precisely those one would expect to cause trouble in the classroom. In fact, superintendent Valeria Silva’s decision to “mainstream” EBD students was a primary factor in the discipline nightmare the St. Paul public schools endured after race-based discipline policies were imposed there in 2012.

4. Cassellius asserts that “in Kersten’s world, all we really need to do to eliminate unruly behavior in children is to make sure they all come from a two-parent household.”

That’s false. To control unruly conduct, our schools need to do two things: 1) adopt high standards of behavior, and 2) enforce discipline policies that hold students accountable for their behavior. Unfortunately, MDHR now intends to dismantle such policies, in the name of ending the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”

5. Cassellius assures readers that neither she nor the MDHR “wants to take away a principal’s ability to suspend or expel a student for violent offenses or criminal activity.” But MDHR has threatened to initiate lawsuits against school districts and charters with disproportionate racial discipline numbers. Across the nation, school officials have responded to threats of litigation by lowering behavior standards and dropping suspensions and other meaningful penalties for misconduct.

Cassellius concludes her counterpoint by assuring readers that “an education system that works for all students must be our highest priority.” Tragically, however, she and MDHR are engaged in creating an education system that will work for none.

Why this disconnect? It appears Cassellius values intentions over consequences, as many on the Left do. In other words, she finds it hard to imagine her plans might go awry, because she has such good intentions. Yet race-based discipline plans of this kind have gone awry—terribly awry—in school districts across the country.

In my op-ed, I focus on the public schools of St. Paul and Syracuse, New York as examples. But Broward County, Florida, is an even more troubling case. That’s where student Nikolas Cruz gunned down 17 people on February 14, 2018.

An in-depth analysis by RealClear Investigations sheds light on what went wrong at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County:

Despite committing a string of arrestable offenses on campus before the Florida school shooting, … Cruz was able to escape the attention of law enforcement, pass a background check and purchase the weapon he used to slaughter three staff members and 14 fellow students because of Obama administration efforts to make school discipline more lenient.

Here’s what happened: In 2013, Broward County school administrators rewrote the district’s discipline policies in an effort to avoid the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The goal was to make it “much more difficult…to suspend problem students, or for campus police to arrest them for misdeameanors,” according to RealClear Investigations. Cruz’s subsequent offenses ranged from assault to threatening teachers to carrying bullets in his backpack, yet he was never taken into custody or expelled, according to the analysis. (See the 2016 “Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline” between Broward County school officials and government and law enforcement officials here.)

The core of the new Broward County schools’ approach, the analysis states, was

a program called PROMISE (Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Support & Education), which substitutes counseling for criminal detention for students who break the law. According to the district website, the program is “designed to address the unique needs of students who have committed a behavioral infraction that would normally lead to a juvenile delinquency arrest and, therefore, entry into the juvenile justice system.”

Cassellius’s Star Tribune counterpoint is headlined “What Katherine Kersten can’t grasp about schools but readers should.” Well, here’s something Cassellius seems to have difficulty grasping: human nature.

Anyone who’s raised a child should know that children, like all human beings, are capable of selfish, destructive, anti-social actions. Unless they are held accountable for bad behavior—unless they receive a meaningful penalty for it—young people are likely to persevere in such behavior.

The idea that some kids are capable of meeting minimum standards of conduct, while others—because of their skin color—are not, surely merits the label of racism. Unfortunately, that is the position of Minnesota’s commissioner of education.

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