St. Paul teacher punished for speaking out about politically correct disciplinary practices

St. Paul teacher punished for speaking out about politically correct disciplinary practices
Image: Kenric Ward

Don’t dissent against political correctness.  If you are a teacher, it could cost you your job, if you work in the St. Paul schools. There, harmful school discipline policies adopted by the school superintendant (under the influence of misguided federal officials) in the name of “equity” have spawned fights among students and violence against teachers. A veteran teacher who spoke out about such problems has been “suspended for social media posts,” notes education writer Joanne Jacobs. Never mind that the teacher’s speech is protected by the First Amendment, under court rulings such as Thompson v. Board of Education (1989).

As Jacobs notes, citing the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer-Press,

Some St. Paul public schools are unsafe for students and teachers, writes Katherine Kersten, a senior policy fellow at the Center for the American Experiment, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

A Central High teacher was “choked and body-slammed by a student and hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury,” while another teacher was knocked down and suffered a concussion while trying to stop a fight between fifth-grade girls. There have been six high school riots or brawls this school year.

Hoping to close the racial suspension gap, the district has spent millions of dollars on “white privilege” and “cultural competency” training for teachers and “positive behavior” training, an anti-suspension behavior modification program, writes Kersten.

When that didn’t work, “they lowered behavior standards and, in many cases, essentially abandoned meaningful penalties,” she writes. Students can’t be suspended for “continual willful disobedience” any more. Often, students “chat briefly with a ‘behavior specialist’ or are simply moved to another classroom or school where they are likely to misbehave again.”

Behavior has gotten worse, wrote Aaron Benner, a veteran elementary teacher, in the Pioneer Press. “On a daily basis, I saw students cussing at their teachers, running out of class, yelling and screaming in the halls, and fighting.”

Teachers say they’re afraid, writes Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario. He quotes a letter from an anonymous teacher, who says teacher are told there are no alternative placements for violent or disruptive K-8 students….

At this teacher’s high-poverty, highly diverse school, “I have many students in my class who are very respectful, work hard and care about doing well in school,” the teacher writes. “The disruptive, violent children are ruining the education of these fantastic, deserving children.”

On March 9, a veteran high school teacher was suspended for social media posts complaining about the discipline policy, when Black Lives Matter activists charged him with racism.

As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s news coverage and editorial note, the teacher, Theo Olson, never even mentioned race, so the claim of racism has no basis. The teacher simply “expressed frustration on Facebook about the district not providing enough support to deal with “kids who won’t quit” doing things like “setting up fights, selling drugs’” and “cyber bullying”:

Anyone care to explain to me the school-to-prison pipeline my colleagues and I have somehow created, or perpetuated, or not done enough to interrupt? Because if you can’t prove it, the campaigns you’ve waged to deconstruct adult authority in my building by enabling student misconduct, you seriously owe us real teachers an apology. Actually, an apology won’t cut it… Since we now have no backup, no functional location to send kids who won’t quit gaming, setting up fights, selling drugs, whoring trains, or cyber bullying, we’re screwed, just designing our own classroom rules.”

Ironically, the teacher, a liberal, once participated in a racial justice march against police brutality. Parents and teachers appear to view the charge against him as baseless. As the Star-Tribune’s liberal editorial board noted, “Theo Olson, a special-ed teacher at Como for more than a decade, became a target of Black Lives Matter, which decried his Facebook posts as racist, even though race was never mentioned. Olson said earlier that he supported Black Lives Matter and that he had marched with the group last fall. ‘I care deeply for all my students,’ he wrote.”

Olson’s speech about school discipline (in the aftermath of beatings and attacks on school staff by violent and aggressive students coddled by politically-correct school officials) is protected by the First Amendment. That would be true even if it were racially inflammatory, which it was not.  For example, in Thompson v. Board of Education of City of Chicago (1989), a court ruled that a teacher’s remarks in a news article on the quality of education and problems in the Chicago school system (such as gang activity and lack of administrative support for teachers) constituted legitimate comment on a topic of vital public concern. Thus, her remarks qualified as constitutionally protected, even though some community members and teachers perceived the teacher’s comments as racist and inflammatory.

The subject of discipline in the St. Paul schools is a matter of public concern, and thus protected by the First Amendment, which protects teachers’ speech on matters of public concern against reprisals by school officials. See Cox v. Dardanelle Public School Dist., 790 F.2d 668, 673 (8th Cir.1986) (quality of education is a matter of public concern; “[t]he questions how we teach the young, what we teach them, and the environment in which we teach them are of the most central concern to every community in the nation.”); Bowman v. Pulaski County, 723 F.2d 640 (8th Cir. 1983) (speech about student discipline was protected speech despite creating dispute among coaching staff).

The issue of student discipline, and how it is being undermined in urban school districts by bureaucratic micromanagement and federal meddling, is a frequently-debated matter of public concern. See, e.g., Obama Administration Undermines School Safety, Pressures Schools to Adopt Racial Quotas in Student Discipline, CEI Blog, Jan. 13, 2014; How Eric Holder’s Disparate Impact Crusade Leads To Quotas, Daily Caller, June 5, 2014; Attorney General’s School Discipline Push Will Backfire on Students and Reinforce Segregation and Zero Tolerance, CEI Blog, May 20, 2014.

That is especially true in the St. Paul schools, and the Twin Cities, where the issue of student discipline has received frequent media coverage and commentary. See, e.g., Susan Du, Distrust and Disorder: A Racial Equity Policy Summons Chaos in the St. Paul Schools, City Pages, May 27, 2015; Robby Soave, Schools Implement Explicit Racial Bias in Suspensions, Reason, Nov. 11, 2014 (criticizing race-based limits on suspensions in Minneapolis); Minneapolis Adopts Unconstitutional Racial Quotas in School Discipline, CEI Blog, Nov. 12, 2014; Dr. Susan Berry, Minneapolis Public Schools’ Suspension Policy Draws Criticism of ‘Racial Quotas, Breitbart, Nov. 13, 2014.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. Hans also writes for CNS News and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.”


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