In 2011, Aaron Benner noticed a change in his sixth-grade classroom at Benjamin E. Mays, a high-poverty, mostly black public school in St. Paul, Minn. Benner is athletic and African-American, and he gets along well with kids. But that year, he said, students were acting out more, misbehaving more.
"Daily disruptions were breaking my heart," he said.
One day he was playing football with a boy at recess, when the bell rang. Benner had just thrown a pass, but the student had dropped the ball. Benner went to console him and walk him into the building, but the boy turned around and punched him. So Benner brought him to the principal's office. A few minutes later the principal brought him back to Benner's room.
"Never in 16 years of teaching did I have someone assault me and not be reprimanded," Benner said.
"I didn't want this student to be incarcerated or expelled, but I wanted a consequence. So that's when the light bulb finally went off for me. I thought 'Oh. Something's going wrong here at St. Paul public schools.'"
Benner blamed the school district's new discipline guidelines. The district had tried to address disparities in discipline by trying to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions.
St. Paul's efforts grew out of a series of problems familiar to many cities. The number of school-age children in St. Paul had been declining. The percentage of those kids who attended traditional public school was dropping, too: Families were choosing private or charter schools instead. Children who did go to public school were needier.
One of the consequences was a growing racial achievement gap. White children consistently scored better on tests and were more likely to make it to graduation than kids of color. Minnesota had one of the worst achievement gaps in the country, and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul had the worst disparities in the state.
St. Paul's new superintendent, Valeria Silva, had a plan she said would enable schools to do a better job educating all kids. The plan was called "Strong Schools, Strong Communities." The district would save money by sending more kids to local schools instead of busing them to magnets. It would invest in schools with a goal of reducing test-score disparities. And it would change how the district dealt with misbehavior.
Reducing the number of suspensions and expulsions was key. When Chief Accountability Officer Michelle Walker presented the plan to the St. Paul School Board in February 2011, she cited data that showed students of color being suspended and expelled at far greater rates than their white classmates. "We also have noticed that too many of our suspensions are for event types that do not require suspension," she said.
The new policy zeroed in on "event types" like willful disobedience and other behaviors that were in the eye of the beholder. A new discipline handbook removed "willful disobedience" from the list of offenses that warranted suspension. It asked principals to keep a careful watch on disparities. For a brief time, reducing suspensions was part of the formula for calculating principals' bonus pay. The district also signed a contract with the Pacific Educational Group to conduct what it called "Courageous Conversations" with the mostly white teachers about racial biases they might subconsciously bring to the classroom.
That effort was prompted by research showing that teachers are more likely to suspend kids of color than white kids even when the kids' behavior is the same. The theory behind "Courageous Conversations" is that teachers carry "inherent bias" with them that leads them to be more likely to interpret behavior from students of color as more threatening or defiant.
"Our systems were created by white people for white people success," said Rebecca Wade, a special education teacher.
Wade is white but has four black daughters. Her specialty is co-teaching, a classroom management strategy to make learning more personal while minimizing disruptions. She said the new emphasis on equity was essential because schools have been "normed white."
Her own light-bulb moment came many years ago when she was working in a sixth-grade classroom with an African-American boy with special needs. She said she was constantly asking him to lower his voice, but he could never seem to keep it down. One day, when she asked him who he lived with, he listed at least 10 names. When she asked if that's why he spoke in a loud voice, he said the only way to get heard was "'if you're louder than all the rest of the people talking.'" Suddenly his intensity made sense to her. She said she also realized why he was getting disciplined so often.
"The perception was that he was yelling or becoming aggressive because his voice was loud" she says. "If he is talking in a loud tone, and the teacher asks (him to stop) and he continues to talk, now he's not listening, he is not following direction, so now he's disrespecting."
Wade said her perception of what's disruptive might be based on her own inherent bias.
"Disruptive and disrespectful is all subjective," she said. "What I view as disruptive or disrespectful may be completely different from someone else."
District officials never told teachers they couldn't suspend any specific group of students, but many teachers took the new policies to mean that they would get in trouble if they tried to suspend kids of color.
From the beginning, the policy was controversial among teachers and parents, who blamed the reduction in suspensions for chaotic environments in schools. Some schools were perceived as unsafe at best and violent at worst. While few educators argued against an emphasis on equity, some said it shouldn't come at the expense of security. At one middle school in Saint Paul, nine teachers quit in 2014 because the new rules required them to deal with discipline problems. They said they were criticized when they asked the administration for help. One teacher said she quit because she felt she couldn't keep her students safe.
Nick Faber, vice-president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, said an initial decline in suspensions looked good on paper, but caused disruption in many schools.
"Students were acting out in many ways but those behaviors just weren't being dealt with," Faber said. "We still had a number of racial inequities going on, we didn't have kids' needs being met and instead of just blaming students, now we were blaming students and teachers.
Even the data presented a mixed picture. The number of suspensions and expulsions in St. Paul went down the first year of the new policy; from 4,830 to 4,130 according to the Minnesota Department of Education. Then it started to climb back up: 4,418 in 2012; 5,130 in 2013, 6,269 in 2014.
Violence in school started making headlines. At the beginning of the 2015 school year, sprawling fights were reported at three Saint Paul high schools. In October a loaded gun was found in a student's backpack at another high school. In December a student choked a teacher who was breaking up a fight during school lunch. In March cell phone video showed two students fighting with a teacher in a hallway. An editorial headline in the StarTribune from March 2016 read "If Teachers Aren't Safe, Students aren't Safe."
It's not clear that the district's attempt to reduce suspensions actually led to more misbehavior and violence from students. After 2011, when St. Paul schools began to try to reduce suspensions, the district experienced a drop in fighting, weapons and disruptive behavior. There was an increase in what the district calls "aggression to staff," but the assaults on teachers that made headlines occurred after suspensions started to go back up.
The school district was in turmoil. Four new school board members who called themselves "Caucus for Change" were elected in November. Superintendent Silva deployed several dozen administrators to help keep order in 11 so-called troubled schools. The district acknowledged it was having a bad year, but insisted it could still focus on equity and keep buildings safe.
Silva told reporters that improving school climate and increasing enrollment remained her priorities. Her administration awarded grants to six schools to pilot restorative justice programs in the 2016 school year. The teachers union had threatened to strike over discipline issues, and the new contract calls for more in-school support for teachers, as well as the pilot programs.
School board meetings — which had been testy through Silva's administration — became occasions for protests and vitriol. Parents, students, teachers and administrators could not agree how to accomplish what they all said the district needed; more equity, security, achievement and enrollment.
At the end of the school year, Superintendent Silva was forced to resign. The board appointed an interim leader; a retired veteran administrator from a suburban district.
A few new discipline reform efforts are underway for the 2016-2017 school year. Besides the restorative justice pilot programs, a new teacher contract calls for more support in schools. And a new Ramsey County Task Force for Safe Schools is scheduled to make recommendations in January 2017.