School safety has been a burning issue in St. Paul this fall, and now, as the state’s second-largest district and its teachers union dig into contract talks, it’s become a hot topic at the bargaining table, too.

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers is pitching an ambitious proposal to improve school climate by drawing upon the expertise of counselors, social workers, nurses and psychologists, and by putting schools themselves in charge of efforts to turn around problem behavior.

Union Vice President Nick Faber says it is essential that a school community, not the district, own the strategies used to make hallways and classrooms safer — and, hopefully, he said, give voice to both teachers and students when disputes arise.

Thus far, the district, eyeing what could be an expensive proposal, has offered, instead, to convene a committee to study the issue and develop a plan that is sustainable, cost-wise. But that position soon could change as a new school board majority takes office in January having already endorsed the federation’s ideas on restorative justice in the schools.

“This hasn’t been a great start to the school year — for a variety of reasons,” Jon Schumacher, one of four school board newcomers aligned with a Caucus for Change movement, said recently. He contends the behavioral incidents that have arisen “stem from a real lack of people being in place and being able to build relationships with our students.”

This fall, students at Como Park and Humboldt high schools engaged in fights so large they were described by police as “riots.” In October, a Harding High student was caught in class with a handgun in his backpack. He since has pleaded guilty in Ramsey County juvenile court to possession of a dangerous weapon on school property.

In the past two years, Harding has led district high schools in the number of students suspended for fighting — 73 in 2013-14 and 72 in 2014-15.

The union is proposing to build on a pilot project that involved creation of school climate improvement teams made up of educators and school community members. Under its proposal, the district would provide $100,000 to each school that has a team willing to participate in restorative justice work. It also would dedicate a teacher to serve as restorative practice coach at each of those schools. In 2014-15, four schools had school climate improvement teams, a federation report said.

But the St. Paul School District has 58 schools in all, and in its budgeting process, would need to earmark enough money for each school to participate, said Ryan Vernosh, a district spokesman. The total cost, he said, would be at least $11.6 million — a figure that could put added strain on an already tight 2016-17 budget.

Building relationships

In recent years, Superintendent Valeria Silva has made it a priority to reduce suspensions. Under Silva’s watch, the district removed “continual willful disobedience” from the list of suspendable violations and made bonus pay available to principals who reduced suspensions — a practice that since has been discontinued.

At the same time, teachers have spoken of the frustration of sending a student to a principal’s office on a discipline referral, only to see the student return to class a short time later without the teacher having a say in what occurred.

Faber said that the union, too, wants to move from a punitive system to one that emphasizes building relationships. At Harding High, for example, Erik Brandt, a teacher who tried to quiet a student who was rapping about gun violence and was met by the student coldly simulating firing a gun at him, worked with school administrators — who in turn tracked down the boy’s grandmother — and later sat down with the student to talk through the incident.

In the end, Brandt recalled recently, “there was peace … there was respect and a mutual sense of trust.”

The district has not estimated the total cost of the union’s contract demands, which include not only the restorative practice component, but also possible wage-and-benefit increases. The federation is seeking 2.5 percent pay increases for teachers in each of the contract’s two years. That is in addition to the automatic hikes that come with each year of service and education level attained.

Vernosh said this week the district has not projected the cost of the union’s proposal or offered a counterproposal.

In the meantime, he said, it has decided not to wait for the outcome of negotiations to begin talks with teachers and others about systemwide restorative practices. It has created a new Department of School Climate and Support that will be headed by Jon Peterson, who now oversees the district’s college and career readiness work.

Peterson said that he comes in with no preconceived notions about strategies. But one opinion he will share: A good way to gauge a school’s climate is by the number of fighting-related suspensions.

By that measure, district data for the past three years indicates that the student-suspension situation as it relates to fighting has improved at four high schools — Central, Johnson, Highland Park and Washington Technology Magnet — but still needs work at three others: Como Park, Humboldt and Harding.