Classroom Chaos

Teachers are in crisis over the disarray and the threats unleashed by policies of ‘equity’

A St. Paul Central High School teacher is choked and body slammed by a student and hospitalized with a traumatic body injury. A teacher caught between two fighting fifth-grade girls is knocked to the ground with a concussion. Police are compelled to use a chemical irritant to break up a riot at Como Park High School.

St Paul schools are in anarchy, as another act of violence seems to make the headlines every week. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi has branded the trend “a public health crisis.” Teachers threatened to strike over the dangers they face, and their safety was a pivotal issue in recently concluded contract negotiations. “We are afraid,” one told the Pioneer Press.

What’s happening in St. Paul, and increasingly throughout the nation, is the consequence of the powerful ideology of racial “equity” that has gripped the imagination of Twin Cities school officials-and far beyond. Equity in this context does not mean fairness, but racial statistical parity in school discipline rates, regardless of students’ actual conduct.

In St. Paul, the transformation in school climate 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 in St. Paul, as nationally, are far more likely to be suspended than white students.

But the strategy used—dropping meaningful consequences for student misconduct—led kids to believe they can wreak havoc with impunity. As one teacher put it: “We have a segment of kids who consider themselves untouchable.”

Push comes from Washington

Racial “equity” in school discipline is a top priority of the Obama administration’s Department of Education (DOE). Discipline rate disparities are “simply unacceptable” and a violation of “the principle of equity,” according to Arne Duncan, who served as Secretary of Education until early 2016.

Duncan has claimed that students who are suspended are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to get involved in the juvenile justice system. He has repeatedly denounced what he calls the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Student behavior isn’t the problem, according to Duncan. “It is adult behavior that must change,” he has said. The DOE intends to make sure that happens. It is currently investigating school districts across the country on equity grounds, and threatens to sue or withhold federal funds if racial numbers don’t match up.

“White privilege” training for teachers

In St. Paul, Valeria Silva shares Duncan’s view that teachers, rather than students, are to blame for racial differentials. Most suspensions involve “largely subjective” student behaviors such as “defiance, disrespect and disruption,” she told the Star Tribune in 2012. To prevent bias, teachers must learn “a true appreciation” of their students’ cultural “differences” and how these can “impact interactions in the classroom,” she said.

Silva launched her “Strong Schools” campaign by retaining a California-based diversity consultant called the Pacific Educational Group (PEG). Using PEG’s “Courageous Conversations” program, she compelled all St. Paul school personnel—from principals to lunch ladies—to confront “white privilege” and to learn “cultural competence” in dealing with black students. To date, this initiative has cost taxpayers at least $2 million.

Dropping consequences for bad behavior

At the same time, Silva began transforming the district’s discipline policies. In an effort to reduce black discipline referrals, she lowered behavior expectations and dropped meaningful penalties for student misconduct. For example, in 2012, the district removed “continual willful disobedience” as a suspendable offense.

Silva replaced previous policies with an anti-suspension behavior modification program called “Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports” (PBIS). Under this approach, disruptive students meet for about 10 minutes with a “behavior specialist” before being returned to class or moved to another classroom or school where they are likely to misbehave again. The price tag for PBIS, as for PEG, is in the millions of dollars.

The program’s real-world consequences in schools

Violence and disorder in the St. Paul schools escalated dramatically in response to Silva’s transformation of standards of behavior and consequences for misconduct.

The 2015-16 school year has seen riots or brawls at Como Park, Central, Humboldt and Harding High schools— including six fights in three days at Como Park. Teachers say fights often aren’t one-on-one, but involve roving bands of kids ganging up to attack individuals.

News reports paint a grim picture at these and other district schools: students fighting in a stairwell as staff struggle to hold a door to prevent dozens more from joining the brawl; uncontrolled packs of kids—who come to school for free breakfasts, lunches and Wi-Fi—roaming the halls, and “classroom invasions” by students aiming to settle private scores.

New revelations of student-on-staff violence seem to come almost every week. On March 9, for example, a Como Park High School teacher was attacked during a classroom invasion by two students, suffered a concussion and needed staples to close a head wound. On March 22, 63-year-old substitute teacher Candice Egan was shoved repeatedly and pinned to a wall by a 13-year-old student. She went to urgent care with shoulder and neck pain.

At many elementary schools, anarchy reigns. Kids routinely spew obscenities, beat up classmates, and run screaming through the halls, former fourth-grade teacher Aaron Benner wrote in the Pioneer Press in 2015.

Teachers are in crisis over the chaos and the threats they face. “Many of us…often go home in tears,” one told Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario.“It’s constant, and it’s crushing,” added the wife of a teacher who deals every day with students “who threaten him physically, who swear at him, whodisrupt his classes so profoundly that nobody else can learn.”

District leadership in denial

District leaders—in “see no evil” mode—adamantly deny the escalating violence and disorder are connected with disciplinary changes. The district is apparently taking steps to mask the extent of the mayhem, and to intimidate and silence teachers who criticize Silva’s policies.

Teachers report, for example, that administrators often fail to follow up when teachers refer students for discipline. “This tactic is widely used throughout the district to keep the numbers of referrals and suspensionslow,” wrote Benner in the Pioneer Press.

The district has also penalized teachers who report assaults. This happened to Egan, who told police of her assault after school authorities failed to do so—despite the fact that the district’s handbook required it. Egan also spoke to a reporter who called her after the attack.

Within days, she was informed that she could not work in the district again. Egan told the Star Tribune that Teachers on Call, which lines up her subbing engagements, had told her that district officials wanted “distance” from her “because of the way the incident was handled.”

Egan views the district’s position as retaliation for her decision to file a police report and to speak to the media. “I keep getting told…that I did something wrong, and I don’t think that’s true,” she said.

In the past, a few courageous teachers have brought their concerns about chaotic school environments to the St. Paul School Board. But those who raise objections publicly know there may be a price to pay.

“There is an intense digging in of heels to say there is no mistake,” Roy Magnuson, an outspoken social studies teacher at Como Park High School, told City Pages. “The practice deflection 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.”

The penalty for criticism can go well beyond race-shaming. Benner—a leader of teachers seeking change—wrote in the Pioneer Press that district leaders pushed him out of his school and fired his aide. Benner now works at a charter school.

Another district tactic is to attempt to shift blame to teachers for any harms they suffer in student attacks. John Ekblad, the Central High teacher whosustained a traumatic brain injury, discovered this when he sued the district for failing to protect him in a “dangerous environment.”

In response, the district claimed that Ekblad’s injuries “were due to, caused by and solely the result of [his] own carelessness, negligence, fault and other unlawful conduct.” His injuries, it alleged, were caused by “third persons over whom the defendants had nocontrol.”

In reality, Ekblad—as a member of Central High’s “safety team”—was responsible for dealing with disruptive student behavior. The district’s humanresources director told the Pioneer Press, around the time of the attack, that teachers “can intervene in the fastest and safest way possible” when student conduct puts someone “in harm’s way.”

Social media comments can also put teachers’ jobs at risk. On March 9, special education teacher Theo Olson was put on paid administrative leave after he expressed frustration with the administration’s lack of support for teachers in two Facebook posts. Olson did not mention race. Nevertheless, Silva placed him on leave after Black Lives Matter St. Paul threatened to “shut down” Como Park High School unless Olson was fired.

What causes the racial discipline gap?

“Equity” ideology claims that teacher bias is self-evidently the cause of racial discipline differentials. But the Obama administration’s data reveal that, across the country, white boys are suspended at more than twice the rate of Asian and Pacific Islander boys. The same is true in St. Paul.

If you follow “equity” logic, this must be because teachers are prejudiced against white boys. But isn’t it more likely that white boys’ rate is higher because they misbehave more often than their Asian peers?

Certainly, black youth, on average, are far more violent than their peers. Nationally, for example, black males between 14 and 17—high-school aged— commit homicide at ten times the rate of white and Hispanic males of the same age combined.

In 2014, a ground-breaking study in the Journal of Criminal Justice concluded that teacher bias in fact plays no role in the racial suspension gap. The study—“Prior problem behavior accounts for the racial gap in school suspensions”—analyzed the largest sample of school-aged children in the nation. Unlike “virtually all” previous studies, it controlled for individual differences in student behavior over time.

Using this rigorous methodology, the authors found that the racial discipline gap is “completely accounted for by a measure of the prior problem behavior of the student.” Racial differentials in suspension rates, they said, appear 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.”

What accounts for the differences in school behavior of black and white students, as groups? Black students, on average, enter school less prepared academically and with deficits in many social skills, which their parents can’t control, according to the authors. These deficits can result in problem behavior as early as kindergarten and first grade.

Why have many previous studies failed to reveal the link between school discipline rates and students’ prior history of misconduct? The authors note the “clear motivations of some scholars and activists” to frame this sensitive and politically charged problem as a civil rights issue.

“Great liberties have been taken in linking racial differences in suspensions to racial discrimination,” they write. Nowhere is this truer than in the “rhetoric surrounding the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’ Under these circumstances,” they conclude, “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 work to correct the problem behaviors of very young students, the authors suggest. If this doesn’t happen, early bad habits can become entrenched, which can greatlyincrease children’s chances of academic failure and dropping out.

But equity ideology makes constructive correction impossible in the St. Paul schools. Elementary teachers say they are powerless to require students to apologize to classmates they have harmed, or to clean up after trashing a classroom. As a result, kids don’t learn from their mistakes or gain practice in controlling their anger or impulses.

Problems with breakdown of the family

At bottom, the black-white discipline gap appears to be rooted in dramatic racial differences in family structure. Research reveals that children from fatherless families are far more likely than others to engage in many kinds of anti-social behavior. Chaotic family life often gives rise to the lack of impulse control and socialization that can produce school misconduct.

The City of St. Paul will not release out-of-wedlock data by race. But Intellectual Takeout—a Minnesota-based public policy organization—has learned through a FOIA request to the Minnesota Department of Health that a jaw-dropping 87 percent of births to black, U.S.-born mothers in St. Paul are out-of-wedlock, compared to 30 percent of white births.

The “school-to-prison” pipeline? The problem we confront is better characterized as the “home-to-prison” pipeline.

The fruits of racial “equity”

What does Valeria Silva have to show for five years of racial equity policy?

Reality can’t be kept at bay forever. Violence and classroom anarchy are now so extreme that suspensions—though a last resort—are finally on the rise. In December 2015, Silva announced that first-quarter suspensions were the highest in five years.

Seventy-seven percent of those suspensions involved black students, who make up about 30 percent of the district’s student population. Even pricey “cultural competency” training for teachers, it seems, can’t alter the facts on the ground.

In addition, families who value education are increasingly choosing to leave the St. Paul district. St. Paul has a large Hmong population, and many areleaving—or thinking of leaving—for suburbs like Roseville and Woodbury, according to City Pages. Harding High School teacher Koua Yang says that he has lost about 20 Hmong students in the exodus over the last few years.

“This racial equity policy, it’s not equitable to all races,” he told City Pages. “It isn’t.”

On March 22, 2016, the St. Paul School Board averted a threatened strike by approving a new teacher contract. The contract gives teachers what might be characterized as hazard pay—the highest in the state, according to the Star Tribune.

The contract includes funds for new counselors, social workers and nurses, and for pilot sites for new school climate approaches. But safety and order across the district are unlikely to improve significantly as a result.

That’s because union leaders have bought into the rhetoric of equity, and are placing their hopes on “restorative justice”—an approach to discipline that focuses on mediation as opposed to penalties for disruptive behavior. Unfortunately, so long as students’ defiance and misconduct are excused as “cultural differences,” St. Paul schools are likely to remain difficult places both to teach and to learn.

Conclusion: Who are the real victims here?

Proponents of “equity” say they seek justice for poor and minority children. But it is poor and minority children—struggling to learn in anarchic classrooms—who suffer disproportionately from misguided equity policies. If disorder is allowed to flourish in the name of statistical parity, our yawning racial learning gap will continue to widen.

At the same time, equity policies teach trouble-making students that bad behavior and disrespect for authority carry no adverse consequences. How can they ever hold a job or become productive citizens with such a distorted view of reality?

Equity supporters routinely—and baselessly—denounce our schools as bastions of institutional racism. By doing so, they lead minority students to distrust the one institution that can offer them a sure route out of poverty.