Aaron Benner, the former St. Paul Public Schools teacher who sued the district alleging it retaliated against him for criticizing its discipline practices, returns to federal court on Friday hoping to keep his case alive.
He is fighting the school district’s motion to have the lawsuit dismissed. The district contends that Benner’s career did not suffer when it investigated him four times during the 2014-15 school year.
Benner’s attorney, Ashwin Madia, has noted that Benner, then a teacher at John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary, never had been disciplined by the district before, and that the state’s second largest district conducted only five other investigations of teachers at the East Side school from 2012 to 2016.
The 2014-15 scrutiny of Benner began just months after he appeared at a May 2014 school board meeting with four other teachers to push for higher expectations of students and greater consequences for those who misbehave. Benner, who is black, said the district was failing black students by not holding them accountable for disruptive behavior.
In depositions last summer, Madia asked John A. Johnson Principal Lisa Gruenewald if she found it “curious” that Benner would speak out at the board meeting, plus write e-mails to her about discipline problems at John A. Johnson at the start of the 2014-15 school year, and then suddenly find himself facing multiple investigations.
“All those things are true, what you said,” she replied. “You know, he did speak out, he did write about the behavior. I’m also saying I did what I had to do to do my job. And, so, that’s what I did. I did my job.”
That year, Benner was accused of breaching confidentiality rules by calling the parent of a girl who had been knocked to the floor by a boy. He left his students unattended another time, which he acknowledged was a mistake. He also was required at one time to provide a doctor’s note proving he was ill on a day when he called in sick. No other teacher at John A. Johnson was required to do the same, according to a St. Paul human rights department investigation that found probable cause to believe that racial discrimination and retaliation against Benner had occurred.
Valeria Silva, the former district superintendent who sought to shrink disparities in the percentage of black students being suspended, said in a deposition that Benner’s opposition to how the district was implementing its racial equity policy and his performance as a teacher were separate things. She denied the district was trying to silence him with its investigations.
“You can’t do that,” Silva said. “You can’t. It’s illegal. It’s not what I do.”
She also said violent incidents in the district rose in the year after she was forced out in 2016, but they went unreported by the media.
Gruenewald, too, referenced problems she was having with teachers at John A. Johnson during the 2017-18 school year.
Madia asked if it was her responsibility to call human resources when she received a report about an incompetent teacher.
“I don’t call HR every time somebody is an incompetent teacher,” Gruenewald testified last summer. “I would be calling them every day. Like, I mean, in this year, there were so many teachers, I would’ve been calling them every day.”
Despite the multiple investigations, the district said Benner’s lawsuit should be tossed because it says there is no evidence that his career opportunities, compensation or duties changed in any way. He now earns more pay as an administrator at Cretin-Derham Hall High School, the district said.
Madia and Benner said his disciplinary write-ups contained language that was grounds for dismissal.
“I could have been fired at any time,” Benner said in his deposition last summer. “I had no choice, no choice but to resign.”