With a contentious spring behind them, St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva and teacher Aaron Benner met privately last summer to discuss their opposing views on the district’s handling of student misbehavior.
The setting was Rondo Days, a celebration honoring the city’s historic black neighborhood and an event held near a Head Start center named after Benner’s grandmother, Ruth Benner.
Benner, who is black, has long argued that the district’s push to reduce suspensions too often fails to hold black children accountable for classroom disruptions. Silva, a racial-equity advocate, sees black students suspended in disproportionate numbers, and demands change. But on that day last summer, she was attentive, Benner said, and later gave him her cellphone number while the two made light of her having called him a “troublemaker.”
But there’d be no harmony in the 2014-15 school year.
In fact, in recent weeks, Benner has stepped up criticism of the district’s racial-equity work in TV and radio appearances that included an interview on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” He also has accused administrators — Silva included — of unfairly targeting him in a series of personnel investigations and other maneuvers that he claims were designed to silence him or to lay the groundwork to fire him.
His concerns, in turn, have contributed to perceptions of St. Paul being a district plagued with out-of-control hallways and classrooms, a view not fully supported by suspension data recently released for the first three quarters of 2014-15.
District officials deny any conspiracy or retaliatory action against Benner. An assistant superintendent said in an e-mail to Benner that he respects the rights of employees “to voice their concerns, ideas and feedback in a constructive manner.”
Last week, school let out for the summer, and Benner, who finished the year at John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary on the city’s East Side, wouldn’t say where he’s headed in the fall. But he has not been hesitant to speak out in the past.
In May 2014, Benner was one of five teachers who appeared before the school board to publicly challenge Silva and board members over perceived missteps in 2013-14, an event that would give rise to a “Caucus for Change” movement dedicated to replacing board incumbents.
In a recent interview, Benner spoke of the year’s struggles and supplied e-mails he’d exchanged with Silva and Andrew Collins, assistant superintendent of elementary schools.
In a Jan. 25 e-mail to Collins, Benner wrote that the investigations against him — three at the time — reflected an “eagerness to ‘catch me’ [that] would be considered comical” if teaching time wasn’t affected. “Yet, it is,” he added.
In one investigation, Benner said he was accused of breaching confidentiality rules by calling the parent of a girl who he said was knocked to the floor by a boy and dazed for 10 seconds in September. That alleged violation is now part of his personnel file, to which Benner says: “Fine, fair game.” But he noted, too, that the parent had yet to be informed of the incident at the time he called.
In response to Benner’s claims of being targeted, Collins wrote on Jan. 26: “If what you are insinuating is that there is some type of conspiracy against you because of your opposition to the district’s racial equity policy, I want to assure you there is not.”
Collins offered to meet with Benner, who initially was receptive. But Benner said he decided against it when a fourth investigation was launched against him in February, one in which he acknowledges having made the mistake of leaving students unattended.
Still, Benner said, to be investigated that many times in the course of about six months was unprecedented in his 20-year teaching career. It was “harassment, basically,” he added, all because — in his view — of what he said at that May 2014 meeting.
‘Not black culture’
For several years, Benner has taken issue publicly with the district’s hiring of a consultant, Pacific Educational Group, to conduct “courageous conversations” that encourage staff members to examine any racial biases they might bring to their work. At the May 2014 school board meeting, he said the district was doing a disservice to black students by not holding them to the same standard of conduct as students from other ethnic groups.
“Refusing to work is not black culture,” he told the board. “Assaulting your teacher is not black culture.”
He and the other teachers pushed at that time for higher expectations of students and greater consequences for those who misbehave. But it has been Benner alone who has spoken of a perceived lack of discipline relating to black students, specifically.
The district has sought to be more precise about the type of behavior that warrants suspensions, and it has promoted the idea of improving teacher-student relationships and intervening when needed.
When concerns about unruly behavior at Ramsey Middle School spurred a parent revolt, several specialists were brought in last December to work with disruptive students in hopes of restoring calm and creating a better learning environment — action that produced positive results.
Benner said he supports erasing racial inequities. But he accuses the district of doing its racial-equity work in a “fraudulent” way by not always informing parents of incidents that occur and by not interviewing teachers about behavioral issues they report.
In the first three quarters of 2014-15, suspensions were up 8 percent districtwide, compared with a year ago. Preliminary numbers show 8.8 percent of black students being suspended in that time. That’s about the same percentage as in 2013-14, but more than the 0.6 percent of Asian students and 1.8 percent of white students suspended in that time.
Laurin Cathey, the district’s human resources director, acknowledged in a statement last week that it was uncommon for anyone to face four investigations in a single year. But, he added, none of the allegations against Benner was initiated by Collins, the assistant superintendent, and their sources varied. Only one investigation resulted in formal discipline, Cathey said.
Cathey concluded that he could state “with complete confidence” that the investigations were not without cause or “retaliatory in any way.”
Benner suggested that perhaps the best way to deal with unruly students would be to send them to a room to be staffed by a licensed teacher who’d work with them.
“This,” he said of his criticism, “is not about me saying they should be suspended.”