Mayhem in the Classroom
St. Paul’s disastrous quest for ‘equity’ in school discipline.
St. Paul — The most dangerous places in St. Paul, Minnesota, these days may not be the city’s tough East Side or Frogtown neighborhoods, but its public schools.
At Como Park and Humboldt high schools, police have been called to quell riots involving dozens of students. At Central High School, a teacher was body-slammed by a student and hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury. “Classroom invasions” by students settling private scores have become a fact of life.
At elementary schools, meanwhile, out-of-control kids overturn chairs and attack their classmates, as teachers stand by helplessly. A teacher caught in a fistfight between two fifth-grade girls was knocked to the ground with a concussion.
Public schools should be among our communities’ safest places. Why do St. Paul’s schools increasingly resemble Lord of the Flies?
The transformation dates from 2011, when superintendent Valeria Silva launched her “Strong Schools, Strong Communities” initiative. The plan sought to engineer a dramatic reduction in the suspension rate for black students, who here, as nationally, are far more likely to be suspended than white students.
Silva’s “Strong Schools” initiative was at the forefront of the crusade for racial “equity”—a top priority of the Barack Obama administration’s Department of Education. Equity in this context does not mean fairness, but racial statistical parity in school discipline rates, regardless of students’ actual conduct.
Equity proponents claim that teachers’ racial biases are the primary cause of the discipline gap. Silva maintains that “defiance, disrespect and disruption” are “subjective” student behaviors, which teachers perceive and punish in discriminatory ways.
Silva’s campaign to eliminate racial disparities had two components. First, she retained a “diversity” consultant called the Pacific Educational Group—at a cost of at least $2 million to date—to compel teachers to confront their “white privilege” and develop “a true appreciation” of their students’ cultural “differences.”
Second, she dropped meaningful penalties for student misconduct. That signaled to kids they could wreak havoc with impunity. For example, “continual willful disobedience” was removed as an offense punishable by suspension in 2012. The new plan provided that disruptive students generally just chat with a behavior “specialist” before returning to class, or be moved to another classroom or school, where they would likely act up again.
The Obama administration now aims to impose Silva-style discipline policies at schools across the nation. Longtime secretary of education Arne Duncan made clear that his department considered racial differences in discipline rates “simply unacceptable” and a violation of “the principle of equity.” “It is adult behavior that needs to change,” he declared in 2014. The Department of Education is investigating a number of school districts on equity grounds and threatens to sue or withhold federal funds if racial numbers don’t match up.
The results of this campaign are on display in St. Paul. In the words of one teacher: “We have a segment of kids who consider themselves untouchable.”
At the city’s high schools, packs of kids—who come to school for free breakfasts, lunches, and WiFi—roam uncontrolled through the halls. A City Pages article related this revealing anecdote: At Harding Senior High School, a petite female teacher—who has been attacked, threatened with death, and smashed into a shelf by marauding teens—now instructs her students to use a “secret knock” to enter her classroom to keep invaders at bay.
At elementary schools, kids spew obscenities, beat up classmates, and upend trash cans. One parent told City Pages that on a visit to her second-grader’s classroom, she saw anarchy so extreme that it took the teacher an hour and a half to read two pages to the class.
A few brave teachers have taken their concerns to the St. Paul school board. But those who criticize publicly must be prepared to pay a price.
Roy Magnuson, an outspoken high school teacher, says that school authorities’ reflexive response is to accuse critics like him of being against racial equity. Aaron Benner, a black teacher who has voiced concerns, was branded a racist by the local NAACP. Benner says he was pressured out of the district and now works at a charter school.
The greatest victims of “equity” rules are the disproportionately poor and minority students who must struggle to learn in increasingly chaotic classrooms. Minnesota’s racial achievement gap—already one of the nation’s widest—will likely continue to grow until policies change.
Equity proponents blame teacher bias for the racial discipline gap and claim that discriminatory treatment contributes to a “school-to-prison pipeline.” But a 2014 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice—which utilized a large national data set and was one of the first to assess student misbehavior longitudinally—found that “the racial gap in suspensions was completely accounted for by a measure of the prior problem behavior of the student.” That problem behavior manifests itself in many ways. Nationally, for example, black males between 14 and 17—high-school-aged—commit homicide at 10 times the rate of their white and Hispanic peers combined.
The most significant problem behind the racial discipline gap is taboo to mention. Nationally, 71 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. For white children, the figure is 29 percent. While the city of St. Paul will not release out-of-wedlock data, Intellectual Take-out—a Minnesota-based public policy institution—determined through a FOIA request that a jaw-dropping 87 percent of births to black, U.S.-born mothers in St. Paul are out-of-wedlock, compared with 30 percent of white births.
Research makes clear that young people in fatherless homes are far more likely to engage in antisocial behavior than their peers. Tragically, the problem we face is best characterized not as a “school-to-prison pipeline,” but as a “home-to-prison pipeline.”
If we continue to ignore family breakdown and excuse disruption and defiance as mere “cultural differences,” we will undermine the ability of well-behaved students to learn and drive good teachers from urban schools. If we lead disruptive kids to believe their misconduct has no adverse consequences, we will give them a distorted vision of reality that prevents their ever becoming productive, law-abiding citizens.
Katherine Kersten is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.