Teacher frustrated with debate over suspensions

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 21, 2012 - 3:14 PM

Fifth-grade teacher Aaron Benner told the St. Paul school board it's the community's responsibility to lower the suspension rate among black students.

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Aaron Benner teaches fifth grade at Benjamin Mays Elementary in St. Paul. He said he is fed up with administrators telling him not to suspend his black students and to understand their behavior as “cultural misunderstanding.”

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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St. Paul fifth-grade teacher Aaron Benner is fed up with administrators who are reluctant to suspend black students and who tell him to accept their behavior as cultural misunderstanding.

In a passionate speech to the board of education midway through the school year, Benner said it is not the responsibility of teachers, administrators or even board members to lower the suspension rate. That responsibility rests with parents and the community leaders who allow a disrespectful culture to fester, he said.

It's rare for individual teachers to speak against district policy and Benner, who is black, has been the lone public voice among his peers. He says frustration drove him: "It's a black problem and I want to help solve this."

The emotional and contentious issue of black student suspension has been debated for decades between St. Paul's black community and St. Paul school employees. Fifteen percent of the district's black students were suspended at least once last year -- five times more than white students.

The issue is discussed often, most recently at the board's November meeting where board member Anne Carroll singled out teachers and administrators.

"Most of these issues are adult behavior, which should be turned around quickly," Carroll said. "There needs to be ramifications for this behavior. This is about how we teach, what we expect, and responding in accordance with our own policies and procedures in a more consistent and effective way."

That rankled Benner, who says it's not that simple.

"Some of these kids have no respect for authority," he said. "They walk around the classroom while the teacher is talking. They have this thug mentality, this subculture that just can't be tolerated. They need to be separated from the class."

That's preposterous, said Victoria Davis, an education advocate with St. Paul's NAACP chapter.

"People who think like that are like the people who believe that [black people] are little less than civil or human," Davis said. "It's saying, 'Of course establishments can't ameliorate for in-home behavior because you have values so far below the chart that it's too much to ask for us to fix.' That's ridiculous."

District invests in problem

Though there are no quick solutions, the issue is at the forefront for school officials.

The district has spent close to $2 million since 2009 to implement a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program, which requires administrators and teachers to regularly evaluate their school rules and determine which ones call for suspensions and which call for lesser punishments. They're also encouraged to be more explicit about what is expected of students in order to be successful at school. There are full-time behavior specialists and administrators who focus on the issue.

"You have to have the right attitude to fix a problem like this," said James Walker, a behavior specialist at Obama Elementary. "It doesn't work without the teachers on board." 

The district also spent $350,000 in 2010 on cultural proficiency training that helps teachers and administrators recognize their racial biases.

While the rate of suspended black students steadily dropped between September 2006 and June 2010, it spiked during the past school year.

All agree: Teamwork needed

Benner, 43, has a degree in criminology and worked in the corrections system before becoming a teacher. He has taught in St. Paul district schools for nine years.

He said the district "is on a push to keep the problem kids in the classroom. Teachers refer a disruptive student and the majority of the time the student is right back in your classroom. So, how many times do we do this song and dance throughout the school day before the student is removed or suspended?

"There's a disconnect between the policymakers and the teachers."

Administrators said they are teaching students classroom behavior while at the same time evaluating their own approaches in determining which behavior deserves suspension.

"We're asking the question, 'What are we doing to keep kids in school learning?'" said Sharon Freeman, the district's elementary assistant superintendent. "The kids are not broken. Our job is to educate them. It's the system that's broken."

"If you strip away acts of violence, fighting, assault, et cetera, and look at where most suspensions occur, it is still in the subjective areas of defiance, disrespect and disruption," said Superintendent Valeria Silva.

"Those areas are largely subjective and often hinge on the relationship between the student and teacher. A big part of that relationship development includes the ability of our students and our teachers to develop a true appreciation for and an awareness of differences related to culture and how those differences impact interactions in the classroom and in the school."

That takes a team effort, said Yusef Mgeni, a member of St. Paul's NAACP chapter and a former St. Paul administrator.

"A lot of these kids are treated like hot potatoes," he said. "Teachers shuffle the kids out of classrooms and tend to see [suspension] as the path of least resistance.

"The district has to have an effective relationship with parents and the surrounding community. That would result in more effective partnerships to take a multi-pronged approach to addressing some of these challenges. ... Neither the district or community can do this alone or in isolation from one another."

Daarel Burnette II • 651-925-5032 Twitter: @DaarelStrib

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