The St. Paul School District has agreed to pay $525,000 to a former teacher who claimed it retaliated against him for publicly criticizing its discipline practices.
The school board approved the settlement without discussion Tuesday night.
In the federal lawsuit Aaron Benner filed in 2017, he claimed the district essentially forced him to quit by investigating him four times in the 2014-15 school year — even though he had never been disciplined before.
The personnel moves against him came after Benner joined four other teachers at a May 2014 board meeting in pushing for higher expectations of students and greater consequences for those who misbehave.
Benner, who is black, accused the district of failing black students by not holding them accountable for disruptive behavior.
The district was being led then by Valeria Silva, who sought to reduce racial disparities in student discipline.
In an e-mail, Benner said of the agreement: “I thank God for all the blessings in my life. I turned 50 this year, got married in July and now (there is) this settlement.”
The district denied wrongdoing, and the board made clear in a statement issued Tuesday night that the dispute was the product of a different era: “This agreement enables the district to avoid the time, expense and uncertainty of protracted legal proceedings regarding its previous policies, practices and expectations.”
Benner won a recent court ruling allowing him to seek punitive damages when the case went to trial.
In addition, the district lost a bid earlier to have the case thrown out when U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson said Benner presented a credible case for race discrimination and for being retaliated against for speaking out against a policy he believed to be illegal.
The district said Tuesday that it would be responsible for $50,000 of the settlement amount and that its insurer would pick up $475,000. The district has a $100,000 deductible.
Benner, who last taught at John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary, first spoke out about district discipline issues during the 2011-12 school year.
In 2013, he then helped bring to light what would be the district’s short-lived practice of offering bonus pay to principals who reduced suspensions.
In 2015, Benner took his message to a national audience by appearing on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.”
He told the Star Tribune then that his goal was not to see more black students suspended.
Instead, he said, he wanted unruly students sent to a room staffed by a licensed teacher who would work with them.
He took a job at a charter school when he left the school district in 2015.
Benner now serves as an administrator at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul.
Last year, the district also settled a federal suit involving practices that dated to the Silva years — in that case, her desire to see more English language learners (ELL) being taught in general-education classrooms.
George Thawmoo and Mary Jane Sommerville, and their two sons, who are Karen, filed suit alleging one son was placed in mainstream English and social studies classes at Como Park High even though he was reading at a second-grade level and that the district waited too long to address what the parents suspected was a need for special-education services for the other son.
The district denied wrongdoing in that settlement, too.
That deal followed court-ordered talks that saw the two sides develop measures that included increased support for ELL students. The district also paid the family $12,500 under the agreement.