Benner, Magnuson: To say ‘no’ with love — and high expectations

Recently, the Saint Paul Public Schools’ Board of Education voted 5-1 to remove the School Resource Officers provided by the Saint Paul Police Department.

Just six months earlier, in December 2019, the board voted to renew the contract with SPPD, 7-0.

What happened between December and June? About two months of school before the teachers strike and the pandemic ended in-person classes.

Were there negative events in our schools in January and February? None that made the news.

Did the high school educators advocate for removal? The principals voted 7-0 to retain them. A poll of juniors who would be returning to SPPS this fall was over 90 percent in favor of retaining the SROs.

Did the superintendent and upper leadership advocate for removal? Watching the board meeting, the attitude professed by the superintendent was, in essence, tell us what to do, school board.  So – over the objections of John Brodrick (the only board member with classroom teaching experience) — the board reversed itself and voted to remove the SROs.

Having done so, the next question should be – to replace them, with what?

To be determined.

By district administration.

So, administration abdicates decision-making to the board, which then abdicates policy to the administration. Both of whom contradict the wishes of people working in the buildings. And one wonders why enrollment in our Saint Paul Public Schools continues to drop. Over a thousand fewer students predicted for next year, and that was before the removal of the SROs.

Why are we writing now?

In May of 2014, we were part of a group of five Saint Paul Public School teachers who chose to speak publicly at a Board of Education meeting. We chose to do this after having spent close to 16 hours meeting with three board members, sharing with them our concern that the district’s policies on student expectations in classrooms and hallways was selling our students short and would result in students believing that there were no real consequences for negative actions. We submitted an alternative proposal for high standards schools and criticized the use of Pacific Education Group’s racial equity strategy because in reality it was creating a pathway to lower expectations for many of our students.

We signed up in advance for the  board meeting and made it clear that we were going to be critical of SPPS. For our efforts at openness and integrity, our union, the Saint Paul Federation of Educators, brought us in prior to the meeting to lecture us and encourage us to not appear. The district stacked the meeting with supporters and in essence accused us of being anti-equity. Go to the SPPS web page, Board of Education and watch the May 2014 meeting for yourself. Public comment is first. It will take about 45 minutes.

But pay attention when we state that the district’s policies regarding expectations for students are going to create students who will believe that all too often, there are no consequences for their actions that will inconvenience them enough to make them want to change their behavior. That there is always a justification for unacceptable behavior, and that traditional standards are arbitrary and inequitable.

We suggested that the district was going to help many of our students believe that they did not have to follow rules; because rules were by definition, inequitable. We suggested that as students aged, their disruptiveness would accelerate and worsen. We suggested that the public would lose confidence in our schools.

We believe that our analysis was correct.

As evidence; the steady decline in enrollment. Which has shown up each year since. The many expressed cases of low morale among SPPS educators. The repeated stories of disruptive, harmful and dangerous behavior in our classrooms and hallways.

And sadly, the rise in criminal and negative public conduct among our Saint Paul youth. Carjackers in their early teens. Shots fired by early teenagers. Weapons carried by early and late teens. The shift away from trust to fear in our previously safe light-rail system, or in our downtown experience. And more. The 14-year- old now was 8 in 2014.  The 18-year-old now was 12.  Their SPPS experience helped to shape their current worldview.

Did our schools help them gain appropriate social skills? We have argued no. Will this summer’s intensity on the streets create a potential for danger in our schools? We will argue (and have previously argued) yes. Will the lack of SROs increase the risk of a tragedy?

Yes.

Is it fair to blame all of this on SPPS? No. But what other structure exists with a greater opportunity to impact our youth? To help those young people who need assistance the most? The old Latin phrase, in loco parentis, applies here. But SPPS has become afraid of our kids. Afraid to say no. No, with firmness  No, in a fair manner. No, with love.

But no, nevertheless.

SPPS should say that we will help you achieve age and situationally appropriate behavior. We will model it, we will reward it, and – we will expect it. Because that is what we do in our schools and beyond our schools, our society.

For those who disagree with us, know one very simple thing. If we are wrong, and enrollment goes up and negative behavioral acts go down; we will be the happiest former SPPS educators and freely admit that this column was in error.

But we are writing now because the evidence is pretty clear – we were correct in 2014.

And we were not listened to. Sadly.

Aaron Anthony Benner is a former elementary teacher who taught for 15 years in the SPPS. Roy Magnuson was a career teacher and coach in SPPS for decades.


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