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Star Tribune writers tracking education issues

Legislation inspired by pocket knife case riles anti-suspensions crowd

Months after the state Supreme Court ruled that a student was wrongly expelled after she accidentally brought a pocket knife to school, a state legislator has proposed making it easier for school officials to dismiss students in such cases.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, cautioned at the start of a House committee hearing Thursday that he was not yet sold on his legislation. But that did not stop critics, including the attorney who represented the student in the knife case, from branding it as unconstitutional and a threat to efforts to ease racial disparities in school discipline matters.

Last summer, the Supreme Court upheld a Court of Appeals decision stating that a southern Minnesota school district was wrong to expel a high school honor student for having a knife in her purse in her locker because it failed to show she had willfully violated school policy or willfully endangered others.

The student, Alyssa Drescher, who is white, told the principal at United South Central High that she used the pocket knife to cut twine on hay bales at her boyfriend's farm and "totally forgot" it still was in her purse.

Kresha's bill would eliminate the requirement that an act be "willful" in order for a student to be dismissed from school.

Michael Waldspurger, whose firm represented the school district in the pocket knife case, told members of the House Education Innovation Policy Committee that districts now face a tough challenge removing students for weapons violations. Violators simply can assert an "I forgot" defense, he said, "a very strong defense to overcome."

Peter Shaw, an attorney for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District, said the "willful requirement" was a higher standard than criminal prosecutors face.

But Andrea Jepsen, the attorney who represented Drescher, said she spoke with a former legislator who was in office when the Pupil Fair Dismissal Act was passed in 1974 and that he assured her that lawmakers were clear that a student's actions had to be intentional to warrant dismissal.

Kresha's proposal also drew criticism from activists associated with Students for Education Reform (SFER Minnesota) and Black Lives Matter St. Paul.

John Thompson, a friend and coworker of Philando Castile, the black St. Paul school cafeteria supervisor shot and killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, said black students are being suspended "at an all-time high rate." He worries that the legislation would perpetuate or worsen disparities.

"You guys have to get this right," he told the panel. "Stop coming after our babies."

No action was taken.

Kresha said that he will try to craft a compromise with people on both sides of the issue, and if that fails, he pledged to discontinue work on the bill.

New chief at Teach for America-Twin Cities

Mikisha Nation is taking the helm of Teach for America-Twin Cities, the program that annually trains students who teach in classrooms with many minority or low-income students.

Fifteen local school districts and charter networks work with TFA, including schools like Minneapolis Public Schools, Hiawatha Academies, Higher Ground Academy and KIPP Minnesota, according to a TFA release. Nation will head up more than 40 Teach for America corps members, plus nearly 700 alumni.

She was most recently executive director at Breakthrough Twin Cities, which helps prepare students for college and "cultivates the next generation of educators," according to its website. While she was chief there, the program doubled the number of youth it was helping to about 500 students.

In the TFA release, Nation pinpointed her goals of greatest importance: "to foster a diverse teacher and leadership pipeline, and build school and community partnerships."

"I believe in the power of the Twin Cities community," Nation said in the release. "Working together, we will ensure that all children have the opportunity to attain an excellent education."

Above: Mikisha Nation. Photo courtesy of Teach for America-Twin Cities.