No Thug Left Behind
Obsessed with “racial equity,” St. Paul schools abandoned discipline—and unleashed mayhem.
In the Obama years, America’s public education system embarked on a vast social experiment that threatened to turn schools into educational free-fire zones. The campaign—carried out in the name of “racial equity”—sought to reduce dramatically the suspension rate of black students, who get referred for discipline at much higher rates than other students. From the top down, the U.S. Department of Education drove the effort; from the bottom up, local educational bureaucrats have supported and implemented it.
“Racial equity” has become the all-purpose justification for dubious educational policies. Equity proponents view “disparate impact”—when the same policies yield different outcomes among demographic groups—as conclusive proof of discrimination. On the education front, “equity” does not seek equal treatment for all students. Instead, it demands statistical equivalence in discipline referrals and suspensions for students of every racial group, regardless of those students’ actual conduct.
Equity advocates’ central premise is that teachers, not students, are to blame for the racial-equity discipline gap. They claim that teachers’ biases, cultural ignorance, or insensitivity are the gap’s primary causes. The key to eliminating disparities, they maintain, is to change not students’ but adults’ behavior. Equity supporters justify their agenda on grounds that the racial-equity discipline gap severely hampers black students’ chances of success in life. Kids who get suspended generally fail to graduate on time and are more likely to get caught up in the juvenile-justice system, they say.
President Obama’s Department of Education made racial equity in school discipline one of its top priorities. “The undeniable truth is that everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise,” according to Arne Duncan, who served as education secretary until early 2016. “It is adult behavior that must change,” Duncan stated repeatedly. “The school-to-prison pipeline must be challenged every day.”
Donald Trump’s Department of Education won’t have to wait to see how this project has played out in the real world. The public schools of St. Paul, Minnesota, are ahead of the curve in the racial-equity crusade. The violence and chaos that racial-equity policies have produced there should sound alarms across the nation about what can be expected by pursuing this course.
Valeria Silva, who became superintendent of the St. Paul Public Schools in December 2009, was an early and impassioned proponent of racial-equity ideology. In 2011, she made the equity agenda a centerpiece of her Strong Schools, Strong Communities initiative. The district’s website lauded the program as “the most revolutionary change in achievement, alignment, and sustainability within SPPS in the last 40 years.”
Demographically, the St. Paul schools are about 32 percent Asian, 30 percent black, 22 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent Native American. In 2009–10, 15 percent of the district’s black students were suspended at least once—five times more than white students and about 15 times more than Asian students. In Silva’s view, equity required that the black student population be excluded from school at no more than twice the rate of Asian-Americans, the group with the lowest rate of suspensions.
Silva attacked the racial-equity discipline gap at its alleged root: “white privilege.” Teachers unfairly punish minority students for “largely subjective” behaviors, such as “defiance, disrespect and disruption,” she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2012. To overcome their biases, teachers must learn “a true appreciation” of their students’ cultural “differences” and how these can “impact interactions in the classroom,” she said.
Silva hired a California-based diversity consultant, the Pacific Educational Group (PEG), to compel St. Paul school staff—from principals to janitors to bus drivers—to confront their own bigotry and to achieve “cultural competence” in working with “black and brown” students. In PEG-inspired “courageous conversations” about race, teachers were instructed to begin every statement with a phrase like “as a white woman, I believe,” or “as a black man, I think.” They learned that “shouting out” answers in class and lack of punctuality are black cultural traits and that what may seem to be defiant student behavior is, in fact, just a culturally conditioned expression of “enthusiasm.”
After implementing “white privilege” training, Silva moved to eliminate what she called the “punishment mentality” undergirding the district’s discipline model. In an effort to cut black discipline referrals, she lowered behavior expectations and dropped meaningful penalties for student misconduct. In 2012, the district removed “continual willful disobedience” as a suspendable offense. In addition, to close the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Silva adopted a new protocol on interactions between schools and the police. The protocol ranked student offenses on five levels and required schools to report only the worst—including arson, aggravated assault, and firearm possession—to police. School officials were strongly encouraged to handle other serious offenses—such as assault, sexual violence, and drug possession—on their own. For a time, the district administration actually tied principals’ bonuses to their track record on reducing black discipline referrals.
In 2011–12, disorderly conduct charges for district students dropped 38 percent from the previous school year. School-based offenses referred to the Ramsey County attorney’s office for charges also plunged. In 2006, school officials made 875 referrals for misdemeanor and felony offenses. In 2011, they made 538.
Silva also championed “Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports” (PBIS), an anti-suspension behavior-modification program that focuses on talking and mediation. Under PBIS, unruly students met for about ten minutes with a “behavior specialist” before returning to class or moving to another classroom or school, where they were likely to misbehave again. The “overwhelming majority” of behavior specialists are black, and “it’s not clear to me what their qualifications are,” wrote Aaron Benner—a former fourth-grade teacher who is black himself—in the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2015. Some specialists “even reward disruptive students by taking them to the gym to play basketball,” he added. “There is no limit to the number of times a disruptive student will be returned to your class.”
PEG-trained “cultural specialists” reinforced the administration’s “blame-the-teacher” approach. They advised that if kids cussed teachers out, those teachers should investigate how their own inability to earn students’ trust had triggered the misconduct. The end result of a discipline infraction “should be more than just kids apologizing,” Kristy Pierce, a cultural specialist at Battle Creek Middle School told City Pages, which ran a series of articles on the mounting chaos in the St. Paul schools. “When you use the word ‘black’ versus ‘African American’ and the student flips out, understand where that might be coming from.”
In 2013, Silva made a final policy change. In the name of equity, she sent thousands of special-education students with “emotional and behavioral disorders”—disproportionately black—into mainstream classrooms. Teachers received no extra support to deal with this unprecedented challenge.
We have a segment of kids who consider themselves untouchable,” said one veteran teacher as the 2015–16 school year began. At the city’s high schools, teachers stood by helplessly as rowdy packs of kids—who came to school for free breakfast, lunch, and WiFi—rampaged through the hallways. “Classroom invasions” by students settling private quarrels or taking revenge for drug deals gone bad became routine. “Students who tire of lectures simply stand up and leave,” reported City Pages. “They hammer into rooms where they don’t belong, inflicting mischief and malice on their peers.” The first few months of the school year witnessed riots or brawls at Como Park, Central, Humboldt, and Harding High Schools—including six fights in three days at Como Park. Police had to use chemical irritants to disperse battling students.
“We are seeing more violence and more serious violence,” warned Steve Linders, a St. Paul police spokesman. “Fights at schools that might have been between two individuals are growing into fights between several individuals or even melees involving up to 50 people.” In September, a massive brawl erupted at Como Park High School. Police had to call for backup, as “the scene became very chaotic with many people fighting,” Linders said. “These are not . . . a couple of individuals squaring off with the intent of solving their private dispute,” teacher Roy Magnuson told the Pioneer Press. “These are kids trying to outnumber and attack.” In October 2015, 30 to 40 students clashed in a stairwell at Humboldt High School. Police tried to break up the brawl, as staff strained to hold a door closed to prevent dozens of students from forcing their way through to join the fight.
To cut black discipline referrals, Silva lowered behavior expectations and dropped serious penalties for misconduct.
As the school year progressed, some high schools increasingly came to resemble war zones. Teachers suffered injuries while resisting classroom invasions or intervening in fights; police were compelled to Taser a disruptive student; and one teen brought a loaded gun to school, saying that he needed it to defend himself against rival gang members. At Harding High School, teacher Becky McQueen found her own solution to the chaos. McQueen—who had been threatened with death and shoved into a shelf by classroom interlopers—told City Pages that, to keep invaders out, she now asks her students to use a “secret knock” to enter her classroom.
Silva’s administration put the blame for the escalating mayhem squarely on adults. Jackie Turner, the district’s chief engagement officer, said that in response to the violence, the district would consider more training for staff and school resource officers on “how to appropriately de-escalate situations.” Fights might not have escalated, she said, “if some of the adults would have reacted differently.” Asked if students should be expelled for fighting, Turner replied: “You’re not going to hear that from me, you’re not going to hear that from the superintendent, you’re not going to hear that from any of the administrators.”
Meanwhile, at many elementary schools, anarchy reigned. Students routinely spewed obscenities, pummeled classmates, and raced screaming through the halls, Benner wrote in his 2015 Pioneer Press article. Elementary school teachers, like their high school counterparts, risked physical danger. Teacher Donna Wu was caught in a fight between two fifth-grade girls and knocked to the ground with a concussion. “I’ve been punched and kicked and spit on” and called “every cuss word you could possibly think of,” fourth-grade aide Sean Kelly told City Pages.
Parent Daeona Griffin told City Pages that a visit to her second-grader’s classroom at Battle Creek Elementary School had left her speechless:
My second-grader’s class is the most dysfunctional classroom I have ever witnessed with my own two eyes. I have never even heard of classrooms like Ms. [Tina] Woods’. She has maybe six extreme behavior students in one class. I’ve seen them punch her. I’ve seen them walk around the halls. I’ve seen her try to read to the class and it took her an hour and a half to read two pages. It’s too much.
David McGill, a science teacher at Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet School, told the St. Paul school board that a black fourth-grade bully had “significantly compromised an entire year of science instruction” for his fellow students. But teachers and administrators had avoided disciplining him because of the new equity policy, McGill said. Worst of all, some teachers pointed out, the policy removed teachers’ power to require offending students to apologize or to clean up the messes they made. As a result, teachers lamented, these children never had the opportunity to improve self-control and learn from their mistakes. As the first semester came to an end, teachers were in crisis over the challenges they faced. “Many of us . . . often go home in tears,” one told Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario. “Please, don’t give us more staff development on racism or . . . how to de-escalate a student altercation. . . . We teachers feel as if we are drowning.”
December 4, 2015, marked a turning point. That day, at Central High School, a 16-year-old student body-slammed and choked a teacher, John Ekblad, who was attempting to defuse a cafeteria fight. Ekblad was hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury. In the same fracas, an assistant principal was punched repeatedly in the chest and left with a grapefruit-size bruise on his neck. At a press conference the next day, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi branded rising student-on-staff violence “a public health crisis.” Assaults on St. Paul school staff reported to his office tripled in 2015, compared with 2014, and were up 36 percent over the previous four-year average. Attacks on teachers continued unabated in the months that followed. In March, for example, a Como Park High teacher was assaulted during a classroom invasion over a drug deal, suffered a concussion, and required staples to close a head wound.
In 2014, Benner—a leader among teachers critical of the racial-equity policies—spoke forthrightly to the St. Paul school board. “I believe we are crippling our black children by not holding them to the same expectations as other students,” he told its members. St. Paul students, Benner wrote the following year, “are being used in some sort of social experiment where they are not being held accountable for their behavior.” Safety, not teaching, had become his “number one concern,” he said.
“There are those that believe that by suspending kids we are building a pipeline to prison,” said Harding High’s McQueen. “I think that by not [suspending], we are. I think we’re telling these kids, you don’t have to be on time for anything, we’re just going to talk to you. You can assault somebody, and we’re gonna let you come back here.” District leaders, however, adamantly denied the charge that escalating violence and disorder were connected with recent disciplinary changes. The district took steps to mask the extent of the mayhem and to intimidate and silence teachers who criticized Silva’s policies.
Teachers reported, for example, that administrators often failed to follow up when students were referred for discipline. Benner says that this is a common tactic to keep referral and suspension numbers low. Likewise, parents faulted school officials for failing to report dangerous student-on-student violence to police. One mother told the Pioneer Press that her seventh-grade son was viciously kicked in the groin. But “when I asked the principal why she had not contacted police, she told me, ‘That’s your job.’ ” Another mother told the paper that her son had been cut with an X-ACTO knife at school. When she asked why police had not been told, an administrator drew a map to the nearest station on the back of a business card, she said. After the mother contacted the police, the first assailant was charged with misdemeanor assault and the second with a felony.
Teachers who publicly questioned the new discipline policy risked serious repercussions. “There is an intense digging in of heels to say there is no mistake,” said Roy Magnuson, a social studies teacher who leads the political arm of the St. Paul teachers’ union. The common response, he said, is “that people like me have issues with racial equity and that is the reason we are challenging them. That makes for a very convenient way of barring the reality of the situation.”
Sometimes, the penalty for dissent went well beyond race-shaming. Benner says that district leaders pushed him out of his school and fired his aide. He now works at a private school. Candice Egan, a 63-year-old substitute teacher, has also accused the district of retaliation. After a student shoved her and pinned her to a wall in March 2016, she went to urgent care with shoulder and neck pain. Egan reported the assault to police after school authorities failed to do so—though the district’s handbook required them to do so. She also spoke to a reporter. Shortly afterward, she was informed that she could not work in the district again. Egan told the Star Tribune that Teachers on Call, which arranges her subbing engagements, had told her that district officials wanted “distance” from her “because of the way the incident was handled.”
Social-media comments can also endanger teachers’ jobs. On March 9, special-education teacher Theo Olson was placed on paid administrative leave after he, in two Facebook posts, criticized the administration’s lack of support for teachers. Olson made no mention of race. Nevertheless, Silva put him on leave after Black Lives Matter St. Paul threatened to “shut down” Como Park High School unless Olson was fired.
The district’s strong-arm tactics were highly effective. Most teachers kept their frustration and distress to themselves, fearing damaging entries in their personnel file or a retaliatory transfer. In a social-media post, one veteran teacher estimated the number of educators “squashed” at more than 100, those “scared and intimidated into silence” in the thousands, and the number of “parents ignored” as “too many to count.”
As 2015 drew to a close, violence and anarchy had increased so dramatically that suspensions—though a last resort—finally began to rise. In December, Silva announced that first-quarter suspensions were the highest in five years. Seventy-seven percent involved black students, who make up 30 percent of the district’s student population. As public outrage mounted, families of all races began flooding out of the St. Paul district to charters and suburban schools. Many families are saying that “their children . . . don’t feel safe even going to the bathroom,” Joe Nathan of the St. Paul–based Center for School Change told the Star Tribune in 2016. Parents were also troubled by district students’ declining reading and math scores. The district lost thousands of students, adding up to millions of dollars in lost state aid.
Asians, the St. Paul district’s largest minority, especially resented the new discipline regime. These students—primarily of Hmong and other Southeast Asian backgrounds—tend to be well-behaved and respectful of authority, though many struggle academically. Harding High School teacher Koua Yang said that he had lost about 20 Hmong students to the exodus. “All we hear is the academic disparity between the whites and the blacks,” he complained. “This racial equity policy, it’s not equitable to all races . . . . Why do we have to leave?”
In November 2015, St. Paul voters vented their frustration with Silva’s policies in a dramatic way. They overwhelmingly elected a new school board with a strong anti-Silva majority. Caucus for Change, a teachers’-union-organized group, engineered the victory.
A few weeks after the election, however, the new board faced its first crisis. The vicious assault on Ekblad occurred on December 4, and union leadership—calling the attack a “breaking point”—threatened to strike over school safety issues. In March 2016, the board averted a strike by approving a new teachers’ contract. The contract gave teachers what could be called hazard pay—the highest in the state, according to the Star Tribune. But St. Paul citizens’ confidence in Silva had evaporated. Teachers launched a petition demanding her resignation, and black, white, and Asian community leaders echoed that call in an op-ed in the Pioneer Press. At last, on June 21, 2016, the school board announced Silva’s departure after buying out her contract at a cost of almost $800,000.
In its new contract, the union also won funding for 30 new school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists. But unless district leaders resolve to adopt and enforce high standards of student conduct, a significant long-term improvement in school safety appears unlikely.
At the federal level, the Obama administration also made “racial equity” in school discipline a top priority. In January 2014, the Departments of Education and Justice issued a “Dear Colleague” letter, laying out guidelines intended to compel school districts to adopt Silva-style discipline policies. Currently, federal investigations are under way in districts around the country. Some districts have entered into consent decrees; the feds threatened to sue others or withhold funds if their racial numbers didn’t pass muster. Federal officials have seemed unconcerned that violence and disorder have followed implementation of racial-equity-inspired discipline policies—not only in St. Paul but also in districts such as Oklahoma City and New York. With Donald Trump taking office in January 2017, these initiatives could be rolled back—but the incoming president has described his top priorities as immigration, health care, and jobs, and whatever changes might be in the offing will likely take time.
St. Paul’s experience makes clear that discipline policies rooted in racial-equity ideology lead to disaster. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering that the ideology’s two major premises are seriously flawed. The first premise holds that disparities in school-discipline rates are a product of teachers’ racial bias; the second maintains that teachers’ unjustified and discriminatory targeting of black students gives rise to the school-to-prison pipeline.
In 2014, a groundbreaking study in the Journal of Criminal Justice by J. P. Wright and others discredited both these claims. The study utilized the largest sample of school-aged children in the nation. Unlike almost all previous studies, it controlled for individual differences in student behavior over time. Using this rigorous methodology, the authors concluded that teacher bias plays no role in the racial-equity suspension gap, which, they determined, is “completely accounted for by a measure of the prior problem behavior of the student.” Racial differentials in suspension rates, they found, appeared to be “a function of differences in problem behaviors that emerge early in life, that remain relatively stable over time, and that materialize in the classroom.”
Why do black and white students, as groups, behave differently at school? Black students, on average, “are less academically prepared for school entrance” and bring with them deficits in many social and emotional skills, the study found, over which their parents do not exert control. The authors point out that, while a number of earlier studies have suggested pervasive teacher bias as a factor in the racial-equity discipline gap, “some scholars and activists” show “clear motivations” to present the discipline gap as a civil rights issue, “with all the corresponding threats of litigation by the federal government.”
As for the school-to-prison pipeline, the authors appear to view the concept largely as an effort to link “racial differences in suspensions to racial discrimination.” Under these circumstances, they emphasize, “where careers are advanced, where reputations are earned, and where the ‘working ideology’ of scholars is confirmed, the usual critical and cautionary sway of scholarly investigation, critique, and insight becomes marginalized or usurped.” Schools should make efforts to correct the problem behaviors of young students, the authors say. If they fail to do so, early patterns of “disruptive and unregulated behavior” can become entrenched, and lead eventually to school failure, dropping out, and potentially to encounters with the justice system. In the St. Paul schools, however, equity ideology makes such constructive correction impossible.
The deepest source of the racial-equity discipline gap is profound differences in family structure. Young people who grow up without fathers are far more likely than their peers to engage in antisocial behavior, according to voluminous social-science research. Disordered family life often promotes the lack of impulse control and socialization that can lead to school misconduct. The City of St. Paul does not make out-of-wedlock birth data public. However, Intellectual Takeout, a Minnesota-based public-policy institution, has determined through a FOIA request to the Minnesota Department of Health that 87 percent of births to black, U.S.-born mothers in St. Paul occur out of wedlock, compared with 30 percent of white births. Tragically, the problem we confront is not so much a school-to-prison pipeline as a home-to-prison pipeline.
Who pays the greatest price for misguided racial-equity discipline policies? The many poor and minority students who show up at school ready to learn. The breakdown of order that such policies promote is destined to make these children’s already-uphill struggle for a decent education even more daunting.
Katherine Kersten, a writer and attorney, is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.