Killing the unicorn

How the St. Paul Public Schools and the teachers’ union attacked a black teacher in the name of racial equity.

A unicorn: “something unusual, rare, or unique.” —Merriam-Webster

In 2014, Aaron Benner, a teacher with an impeccable 20-year career, spoke out against the St. Paul Public Schools’ (SPPS) new “racial equity” policy, a plan intended to reduce racial disparities in student graduation rates and academic performance by confronting “institutional racism.” Benner, who is black, found himself sharply at odds with his employer and his labor union over implementation of the policy, which included letting students get away with violent behavior against teachers and other students based on their race.

His objections were not just philosophical; he felt the policy undermined his authority as a teacher and his ability to teach. During that traumatic year, Benner was punched by a student, targeted for termination and left defenseless because, he said, his union conspired with the district to get rid of him. He eventually left his job and sued SPPS for retaliation and race discrimination. His case goes to trial this October in U.S. District Court.

Benner’s lawyer, J. Ashwin Madia, summarized his client’s traumatic year in pleadings: “St. Paul hounded one of the best teachers in the state out of its school district because he told the truth about the tragic impact on both students and teachers of its discriminatory disciplinary policy.” During that single school year, Madia added, Benner endured an onslaught of attacks that included four district-led investigations and three disciplinary actions.

The district “papered his file for termination, disregarded its own due process mandates, demanded he transfer, placed disruptive students from other grades in his class, fired his teaching assistant, tried to coax a child into alleging violence by Benner, and forced him to resign,” Madia said.

Benner has compared himself to a “unicorn” because he was “one of the few black male teachers in St. Paul.” Black teachers are arguably the most sought-after teachers in the country, so why is Benner not teaching in SPPS anymore? (He got snapped up by a charter school and is now at a private, Catholic school.) Why did he find himself in this position?

Falsification of Data and Making Teachers Wrong.

Although the district had already embraced a race-focused, “social justice” approach to educating children, SPPS adopted a formal “racial equity” policy in 2013 after the Obama administration directed public schools to lower suspension rates for minority students. The administration issued financial bonuses to districts that submitted data showing lower suspension rates (irrespective of actual behavior) and provided extra funding for “restorative justice” programs if violence increased following the adoption of the new policy.

Teachers, who risk losing their jobs if they do not comply with the program, are required to reduce the number of behavioral referrals made about minority students—even though the data creates a false impression. “We stopped disciplining black kids, and our data looks great,” Benner said. “But how is that equity? It’s not equity. It’s fraud.”

Just as bad, Benner said, teachers who make referrals are now suspected of “triggering” black student misconduct. “I was questioned as to what I did to set this behavior off.”

The policy does not just manufacture false data, according to critics; it promotes unsafe schools. After Benner was punched by a black student, the principal almost immediately returned the student to the classroom. Benner witnessed students assault other students, damage school property, and even run in and out of his classroom while he was teaching. When he tried to refer them for discipline, he found himself in trouble with his employer and, much to his surprise, unprotected by his union.

Veteran teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, the California school teacher who challenged forced union dues, devoted an entire chapter in her book Standing Up to Goliath to Benner’s story. “The most vital ingredient in creating an atmosphere of safety is discipline,” she wrote. “Aaron and other great teachers know this instinctively. In fact, running a structured and well-disciplined classroom is about 90 percent of a teacher’s job, and without it, chaos and fear ensue and learning stops.”

Caught between what was best for his students and policies he viewed as illegal, Benner went public in a big way. He had previously expressed concerns about setting and enforcing high standards for minority students and did so again before the St. Paul School Board in 2014.

This fall, Benner will argue in court that he posed a unique threat. Here was a black man arguing forcefully and eloquently that the school’s policy, which he characterized as “the separate but equal new illegal policy in St. Paul,” was not only misguided but would harm students, especially minority students, and teachers alike.

Aside from a financial recovery, which is vital given that teacher pay and pensions are based on years of service, Benner’s upcoming hearing is an opportunity to put the “racial equity” approach to education on trial. Again, it is not just SPPS that has adopted this errant theory of education. The ideas and policies, pushed hard by the national teachers’ unions, have corrupted the nation’s educational system from teachers’ colleges to the classroom.

On top of that, say his allies, if a gifted black educator like Benner can be taken out for standing against policies that hurt minority students, where are teachers, especially white teachers, supposed to turn?