A St. Paul Central High School teacher is choked and body-slammed by a student and hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury. A teacher caught between two fighting fifth-grade girls is knocked to the ground with a concussion. Police are compelled to use a chemical irritant to break up a riot at Como Park High School.
Increasingly, some St. Paul Public Schools resemble a war zone. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi has branded the trend of violence “a public health crisis.” Teachers threatened to strike over the dangers they face, and their safety was a pivotal issue in recently concluded contract negotiations. “We are afraid,” one told the Pioneer Press.
Though many — including St. Paul school officials — seem reluctant to acknowledge it, the escalating violence and disorder follow a major change in school disciplinary policies. In recent years, district leaders have increasingly removed consequences for misbehavior, and led kids to believe they can wreak havoc with impunity.
In the words of one teacher: “We have a segment of kids who consider themselves untouchable.”
Why have St. Paul district leaders embraced such a head-scratching approach to school discipline? Most parents will tell you that if you eliminate consequences for kids’ bad behavior, you can expect a lot more of it.
It’s common sense.
But we’re not talking about common sense here. We’re talking about a powerful ideology that has gripped the imagination of Twin Cities school officials — and far beyond. That’s the notion of “equity” — a buzzword that is rapidly becoming the all-purpose justification for dubious policies not only in education but in many public arenas.
Equity, in today’s “newspeak,” is not about fairness — that is, the same rules for everyone. It means quite the opposite. The equity crusade regards people — not as individuals responsible for their own conduct — but, first and foremost, as members of racial and ethnic groups. If one group’s outcomes on social measures are not identical to all of the others’, the cause is presumed to be discrimination and the proper response to be government policies designed to ensure equal statistical results.
The dilemma for St. Paul Public Schools leaders is that the district’s black students are proportionately disciplined and suspended at much higher rates than students of other racial groups.
In 2010-11, for example, 15 percent of the district’s black students were suspended at least once — five times more than white students. This racial differential mirrors those in schools across the Twin Cities and throughout the nation.
For years, St. Paul school leaders have assumed — as equity ideology dictates — that differences in discipline rates are the result, not of higher rates of misconduct by black students, but of the racism of teachers and administrators, who are believed to unfairly target black students.
Most suspensions involve “largely subjective” student behaviors such as “defiance, disrespect and disruption,” St. Paul superintendent Valeria Silva told the Star Tribune in 2012. To prevent bias, teachers must learn “a true appreciation” of their students’ cultural “differences” and how these can “impact interactions in the classroom,” she said.
Since 2010, the district has spent almost $2 million on “white privilege” and “cultural competency” training for teachers. In addition, it has shelled out millions of dollars for “positive behavior” training, an anti-suspension behavior modification program.
Despite these efforts, the district’s racial discipline gap has remained stubbornly wide. So several years ago, St. Paul school leaders adopted what must have seemed a foolproof way to eliminate statistical disparities. They lowered behavior standards and, in many cases, essentially abandoned meaningful penalties.
For example, in 2012, the district dropped “continual willful disobedience” as a suspendable offense. Often, kids who misbehave chat briefly with a “behavior specialist” or are simply moved to another classroom or school where they are likely to misbehave again.
Aaron Benner, a veteran elementary teacher who is black, is one of the district’s most outspoken critics. In 2011, he and four other teachers told the St. Paul school board that they felt powerless to discipline students who spewed obscenities, beat up other kids or continually disrupted class.
In October 2015, Benner — writing in the Pioneer Press — stated that he witnessed “far worse” behaviors during the 2014-15 school year. “On a daily basis, I saw students cussing at their teachers, running out of class, yelling and screaming in the halls, and fighting.” School officials often failed to follow up when he referred kids for misbehavior, he said. “I have since learned that this tactic is widely used throughout the district to keep the numbers of referrals and suspensions low,” he added. Benner now works at a charter school.
The 2015-16 school year has seen riots or brawls at Como Park, Central, Humboldt and Harding high schools — including six fights in three days at Como Park. On March 9, a Como Park teacher was attacked by two students, suffered a concussion and needed staples to close a head wound.
News reports paint a grim picture at these and other district schools — students fighting in a stairwell as staff struggle to hold a door to prevent dozens more from joining the brawl, uncontrolled packs of kids roaming the halls and “classroom invasions” by students seeking to settle private scores. Teachers say fights often aren’t one-on-one but involve roving bands of kids ganging up to attack individuals.
District leaders have repeatedly denied that the escalating violence and disorder are connected with disciplinary changes. But Dave Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, rejects this as “ridiculous”: “The policies that this district leadership are working under — their system on dealing with misbehavior and criminal behavior — have clearly, clearly failed,” he told the Pioneer Press.
Where is this “equity” mantra — the notion that we must equalize racial discipline rates even if it means eliminating behavior standards — coming from? The Obama administration has made it a centerpiece of education policy. Longtime Education Secretary Arne Duncan made clear that his department considered racial differences in discipline rates “simply unacceptable” and a violation of “the principle of equity.”
Duncan claimed that teachers apply disciplinary rules in a racially discriminatory way. He has said that students who are suspended are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to get involved in the juvenile justice system, and he has repeatedly denounced what he calls the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
But wait. The Obama administration’s data reveal that white boys’ suspension rate is more than twice that of Asian and Pacific Islander boys. If you follow “equity” logic, this must be because teachers are prejudiced against white boys. But isn’t it more likely that white boys’ rate is higher because they misbehave more often than their Asian peers?
That appears to be the case with black students — their discipline rate is higher than other students’ because, on average, they misbehave more. In fact, a major 2014 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that the racial gap in suspensions is “completely accounted for by a measure of the prior problem behavior of the student.”
That problem behavior can manifest itself in other ways. Nationally, for example, young black males between the ages of 14 and 17 commit homicide at 10 times the rate of white and Hispanics of the same ages combined.
Why such a gap? A primary reason is likely dramatic differences in family structure. Figures for St. Paul are not available, but nationally, 71 percent of black children are born out of wedlock — with the rate much higher in many inner cities — while the rate for whites is 29 percent. Research reveals that children from fatherless families are far more likely than others to engage in many kinds of antisocial behavior.
Both school misconduct and criminal behavior likely stem from the same source — the lack of impulse control and socialization that can result from chaotic family life. Tragically, the problem we confront is not so much a “school-to-prison” pipeline as a “home-to-prison” pipeline.
Suspensions are now on the rise in the St. Paul schools. In December, Silva announced that first-quarter suspensions were the highest in five years. Seventy-seven percent involved black students, who are about 30 percent of the student population.
In a new contract approved by teachers on March 5, the St. Paul teachers union won a “restorative justice” school climate package, which anticipates adding more counselors, nurses and other staff to assist with behavior challenges. But so long as students’ defiance and disruption are excused as “cultural differences,” the situation is unlikely to improve significantly.
Proponents of “equity” say they seek justice for poor and minority children. But it is poor and minority children — struggling to learn in anarchic classrooms — who suffer disproportionately from misguided equity policies. So long as disorder is allowed to flourish in the name of statistical parity, our yawning racial learning gap will continue to widen.
At the same time, equity policies teach troublemaking students that bad behavior and disrespect for authority carry no adverse consequences. How can they ever hold a job or become productive citizens with such a distorted view of reality?
Equity supporters routinely — and baselessly — denounce our schools as bastions of institutional racism. By doing so, they lead minority students to distrust the one institution that offers them a sure route out of poverty.
Katherine Kersten is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.