The St. Paul NAACP is raising concerns about the case of a black teacher who alleges the St. Paul Public Schools retaliated against him for his criticism of its discipline policies.
Aaron Benner has filed suit in federal court accusing the district of targeting him in a series of personnel investigations in 2014-15 that eventually led the veteran educator to seek a job elsewhere.
In a written statement, Joel Franklin, first vice president of the St. Paul NAACP, said it was “very disturbing” that the district would go after Benner for “simply voicing the concern” that not holding black students accountable for misbehavior sets them up for failure in life.
St. Paul, like many districts, is aiming to diversify a mostly white teaching corps, and its treatment of Benner complicates that goal, Franklin said in a recent interview.
“This is going to hamper any efforts to recruit other African-American teachers,” he said.
The NAACP weighed in on the case after a city human rights department investigation found probable cause to believe that Benner had been a victim of racial discrimination and retaliation when he was subjected to four personnel investigations over a six-month period in 2014-15.
The actions against Benner came after he and four other district teachers spoke at a May 2014 school board meeting about the need for greater consequences for students who misbehave. Benner alone has addressed a perceived lack of discipline specifically for black students, and those views have won him local and national media attention.
After its investigation, the human rights department tried unsuccessfully to mediate a settlement between Benner and the district. Benner then filed suit on May 11. This week, the district turned down a request by Benner’s attorney, Reid Goldetsky, to enter into talks, Benner said, prompting him to break a brief silence.
“SPPS tried to ruin a 20-year teaching career,” he said. “But for me, this will always be about the students. I can make this personal if I want to, but I’m not.”
Benner’s view — shared by Franklin — is that the push to reduce racial imbalance in suspensions fails to help kids who might benefit from discipline.
In his view, the best alternative to suspensions is to send unruly students to a room staffed by a licensed teacher. That is the role he served when he left the St. Paul district to work for a charter school. He now is an administrator at a Catholic school in St. Paul.
The teachers’ contract calls for the hiring of more counselors and testing of a discipline approach that stresses relationship-building. Not good enough, said Benner, who contends the teachers union failed him when he was investigated.
Franklin said that the NAACP will be watching to ensure other black teachers and staff members are not targeted unfairly.
SPPS spokeswoman Toya Stewart Downey said the district does not comment on pending litigation. Two years ago, when Benner’s work was under scrutiny, officials denied any retaliation against him.