The attack on a St. Paul teacher by a student in December has spurred action in a district that has struggled with issues of student discipline and misbehavior.
But Ramsey County Attorney John Choi has made it clear: St. Paul is not alone.
When the county’s top prosecutor stood before reporters at a Dec. 8 news conference announcing plans to form a task force to map out strategies to combat school violence, he spoke of assaults on school officials rising at an alarming rate across the county. Of the 28 fourth-degree assault cases charged by his office in 2015, nearly one-half occurred in the suburbs.
But interviews with law enforcement officials in suburban communities that trail St. Paul in a city-by-city breakdown of such cases reveal no significant concerns about assaultive behavior in traditional school settings.
In Little Canada, where eight cases of student-on-staff violence made their way into the juvenile court system the past two years, the violence occurred in programs tailored to students with emotional or behavioral disorders (EBD), said Sgt. Mike Hankee of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office.
Hankee oversees seven school resource officers who serve at 10 schools in the county, including Mounds View High School, Roseville Area Middle School and Valentine Hills, Island Lake and Turtle Lake elementary schools — the latter three part of the Mounds View school system.
“With the mainstream schools, I can’t remember reading one assault report this year,” Hankee said last week.
In White Bear Lake, police Capt. Dale Hager said he also does not see school violence as a major issue at the schools for which his department deploys school resource officers. According to the county attorney’s office, White Bear Lake was the site of five student-on-staff assault cases prosecuted this year. Hager, however, knew of only two.
A search of available court records about assaults in the county’s suburban schools in 2014 and 2015 uncovered two cases at Roseville Area High for which there were public narratives. In one, a student punched another student for “snap chatting” with his girlfriend. In the other, a student choked another student in the lunch room.
Only at St. Paul’s Central High is there a public case file of student-on-staff violence during the past two years, that being the Dec. 4 incident in which a 16-year-old student slammed a teacher onto a table and chair, and then the floor, and choked him into unconsciousness.
Each of the Roseville and St. Paul cases involved third-degree assault, a felony, which opens the charging documents to public view.
The fourth-degree assault cases cited by the county attorney’s office involve violence against school officials, making it easy to identify trends. But because they involve “demonstrable” rather than “substantial” bodily harm, they are charged as gross misdemeanors, not felonies, leaving only the sparest of details available to the public.
Still, the numbers are rising sharply, with the 28 cases prosecuted in 2015 being twice that of 2014 — and a 60 percent increase over the previous five-year average.
“This is, I think, an issue that impacts all of us,” Choi said.
By early February, the county attorney’s office plans to meet privately with area school superintendents. The office will share data that it is compiling and seek to learn more about what St. Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva and others are seeing in their schools and whether any successful strategies have been employed to curb assaultive behavior.
Then, the task force will be formed and a larger community conversation held, said Erica Schumacher, director of strategic initiatives for the county attorney’s office.
Last month, after the Central High incident, Silva said that the district was moving to ensure that officials and others at the school level know more about students who are new to the schools.
For students who transfer to schools within St. Paul, a “transition meeting” will be held between the old school, the new school and the student’s family to determine what did or did not work in the previous school, Jackie Turner, the district’s chief engagement officer, said last week. She said that about 120 to 160 students transfer within the district in a given month, and that about 40 are linked to behavioral issues.
Previously, Turner said, it fell upon the new school to find out about the student’s previous experiences.
Hankee said that teachers and staff members at schools designed to serve EBD students often face the challenge of trying to keep a student who is frustrated and agitated from turning to physical violence. To be sure, he said, “nobody has a right to be assaulted … but you give a lot more rope, which puts you more at risk.”
The staff members with whom he has worked in EBD programs in Little Canada and White Bear Township care for students and want them to be successful, he said.
His advice to his seven-member team of school resource officers is to build relationships, to ask a kid: “How’s it going today? How did the weekend go?” he said.
Hankee then recalled the story of an officer who built a rapport with a student who in a stressful moment threatened to fight the officer.
The officer, drawing on the strength of the relationship, managed to calm the student, Hankee said, and got a hug in return.