It’s been a rocky week for St. Paul Public Schools.
Within the week, a Black Lives Matter protest stirred a school board meeting; a student assaulted a substitute teacher at Creative Arts Academy, and a special projects coordinator was placed on paid leave after a series of comments on social media.
District tensions have been increasing with recent student assaults on teachers and teacher complaints about student misconduct.
The incidents this week mirror ones earlier this month. Theo Olson, a white special-education teacher at Como Park High, was placed on leave March 9 after posts on his blog provoked protests from Black Lives Matter. The same day, an assault on another Como Park teacher ended with felony charges against two students.
St. Paul’s 44 reported assaults through Feb. 24 are already higher than the 41 incidents in the entire 2014-15 school year.
On Tuesday afternoon, a student pushed a 63-year-old substitute teacher at St. Paul’s Creative Arts Academy twice after she took his cellphone away during class, according to St. Paul police.
The teacher, Candice Louise Egan, told police that she was in a seventh-grade class where a male student refused repeated requests to put his cellphone away. When she took the cellphone, the student stood up and pushed her in the upper chest, took back the cellphone, and pushed her again.
A teacher’s assistant took the student to the principal’s office. There’s no indication in the report that the teacher was injured, said St. Paul police spokesman Steve Linders.
In response to the incident, parent Laura Jones said, “We’re definitely hearing from many perspectives that there are challenges between students and teachers, but every incident has its context. Overall, we need to be looking at solutions.”
Social media outbursts
At St. Paul’s John A. Johnson Elementary School, special projects coordinator Brian White Jr. was placed on paid leave Thursday for posts he made on Facebook.
White, who is black, is part of a leadership program in the school that can lead to an administrative position, according to St. Paul Public Schools. He graduated from Metro State University in 2014 with a B.A. in athletic administration and education, according to his Facebook page.
“For all of the black women that have bought into feminism. It was not created to help you nor does it care about you right now,” White posted. “We must put our energies back into building the black family structure! Stop being derailed.”
White has made several other posts emphasizing the importance of a traditional “black family structure” and criticizing the “effeminization” of black men. The school district is investigating, said spokesman Jerry Skelly.
White did not respond to requests for comment.
Controversies over online comments are becoming a phenomenon, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. Public employees like White and Olson are protected — to varying degrees — by the First Amendment.
“The highest degree of First Amendment protection would be for speech in your off-campus life that relates to a social or political issue unconnected to your teaching duties,” LoMonte said. “If your speech reflects directly on your ability to perform your duties in a way that would impede your effectiveness, however, you lose your First Amendment protection.”
Zöe Peterson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.