In the Obama years, America’s public education system embarked on a vast social experiment that threatened to turn schools into educational free-fire zones. The campaign—carried out in the name of “racial equity”—sought to reduce dramatically the suspension rate of black students, who get referred for discipline at much higher rates than other students. From the top down, the U.S. Department of Education drove the effort; from the bottom up, local educational bureaucrats have supported and implemented it.
“Racial equity” has become the all-purpose justification for dubious educational policies. Equity proponents view “disparate impact”—when the same policies yield different outcomes among demographic groups—as conclusive proof of discrimination. On the education front, “equity” does not seek equal treatment for all students. Instead, it demands statistical equivalence in discipline referrals and suspensions for students of every racial group, regardless of those students’ actual conduct.
Equity advocates’ central premise is that teachers, not students, are to blame for the racial-equity discipline gap. They claim that teachers’ biases, cultural ignorance, or insensitivity are the gap’s primary causes. The key to eliminating disparities, they maintain, is to change not students’ but adults’ behavior. Equity supporters justify their agenda on grounds that the racial-equity discipline gap severely hampers black students’ chances of success in life. Kids who get suspended generally fail to graduate on time and are more likely to get caught up in the juvenile-justice system, they say.
President Obama’s Department of Education made racial equity in school discipline one of its top priorities.
Valeria Silva, who became superintendent of the St. Paul Public Schools in December 2009, was an early and impassioned proponent of racial-equity ideology. In 2011, she made the equity agenda a centerpiece of her Strong Schools, Strong Communities initiative. The district’s website lauded the program as “the most revolutionary change in achievement, alignment, and sustainability within SPPS in the last 40 years.”
Demographically, the St. Paul schools are about 32 percent Asian, 30 percent black, 22 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent Native American. In 2009–10, 15 percent of the district’s black students were suspended at least once—five times more than white students and about 15 times more than Asian students. In Silva’s view, equity required that the black student population be excluded from school at no more than twice the rate of Asian-Americans, the group with the lowest rate of suspensions.
Silva attacked the racial-equity discipline gap at its alleged root: “white privilege.” Teachers unfairly punish minority students for “largely subjective” behaviors, such as “defiance, disrespect and disruption,” she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2012. To overcome their biases, teachers must learn “a true appreciation” of their students’ cultural “differences” and how these can “impact interactions in the classroom,” she said.
Silva hired a California-based diversity consultant, the Pacific Educational Group (PEG), to compel St. Paul school staff—from principals to janitors to bus drivers—to confront their own bigotry and to achieve “cultural competence” in working with “black and brown” students. In PEG-inspired “courageous conversations” about race, teachers were instructed to begin every statement with a phrase like “as a white woman, I believe,” or “as a black man, I think.” They learned that “shouting out” answers in class and lack of punctuality are black cultural traits and that what may seem to be defiant student behavior is, in fact, just a culturally conditioned expression of “enthusiasm.”
After implementing “white privilege” training, Silva moved to eliminate what she called the “punishment mentality” undergirding the district’s discipline model. In an effort to cut black discipline referrals, she lowered behavior expectations and dropped meaningful penalties for student misconduct. In 2012, the district removed “continual willful disobedience” as a suspendable offense. In addition, to close the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Silva adopted a new protocol on interactions between schools and the police. The protocol ranked student offenses on five levels and required schools to report only the worst—including arson, aggravated assault, and firearm possession—to police. School officials were strongly encouraged to handle other serious offenses—such as assault, sexual violence, and drug possession—on their own. For a time, the district administration actually tied principals’ bonuses to their track record on reducing black discipline referrals.
In 2011–12, disorderly conduct charges for district students dropped 38 percent from the previous school year. School-based offenses referred to the Ramsey County attorney’s office for charges also plunged. In 2006, school officials made 875 referrals for misdemeanor and felony offenses. In 2011, they made 538.
Silva also championed “Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports” (PBIS), an anti-suspension behavior-modification program that focuses on talking and mediation. Under PBIS, unruly students met for about ten minutes with a “behavior specialist” before returning to class or moving to another classroom or school, where they were likely to misbehave again. The “overwhelming majority” of behavior specialists are black, and “it’s not clear to me what their qualifications are,” wrote Aaron Benner—a former fourth-grade teacher who is black himself—in the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2015. Some specialists “even reward disruptive students by taking them to the gym to play basketball,” he added. “There is no limit to the number of times a disruptive student will be returned to your class.”
PEG-trained “cultural specialists” reinforced the administration’s “blame-the-teacher” approach. They advised that if kids cussed teachers out, those teachers should investigate how their own inability to earn students’ trust had triggered the misconduct. The end result of a discipline infraction “should be more than just kids apologizing,” Kristy Pierce, a cultural specialist at Battle Creek Middle School told City Pages, which ran a series of articles on the mounting chaos in the St. Paul schools. “When you use the word black versus African American and the student flips out, understand where that might be coming from.”
In 2013, Silva made a final policy change. In the name of equity, she sent thousands of special-education students with “emotional and behavioral disorders”—disproportionately black—into mainstream classrooms. Teachers received no extra support to deal with this unprecedented challenge.
We have a segment of kids who consider themselves untouchable,” said one veteran teacher as the 2015–16 school year began. At the city’s high schools, teachers stood by helplessly as rowdy packs of kids—who came to school for free breakfast, lunch, and WiFi—rampaged through the hallways. “Classroom invasions” by students settling private quarrels or taking revenge for drug deals gone bad became routine. “Students who tire of lectures simply stand up and leave,” reported City Pages. “They hammer into rooms where they don’t belong, inflicting mischief and malice on their peers.” The first few months of the school year witnessed riots or brawls at Como Park, Central, Humboldt, and Harding High Schools—including six fights in three days at Como Park. Police had to use chemical irritants to disperse battling students.
“We are seeing more violence and more serious violence,” warned Steve Linders, a St. Paul police spokesman. “Fights at schools that might have been between two individuals are growing into fights between several individuals or even melees involving up to 50 people.” In September, a massive brawl erupted at Como Park High School. Police had to call for backup, as “the scene became very chaotic with many people fighting,” Linders said. “These are not . . . a couple of individuals squaring off with the intent of solving their private dispute,” teacher Roy Magnuson told the Pioneer Press. “These are kids trying to outnumber and attack.” In October 2015, 30 to 40 students clashed in a stairwell at Humboldt High School. Police tried to break up the brawl, as staff strained to hold a door closed to prevent dozens of students from forcing their way through to join the fight.
At Harding High School, teacher Becky McQueen found her own solution to the chaos. McQueen—who had been threatened with death and shoved into a shelf by classroom interlopers—told City Pages that, to keep invaders out, she now asks her students to use a “secret knock” to enter her classroom.
Silva’s administration put the blame for the escalating mayhem squarely on adults. Jackie Turner, the district’s chief engagement officer, said that in response to the violence, the district would consider more training for staff and school resource officers on “how to appropriately de-escalate situations.” Fights might not have escalated, she said, “if some of the adults would have reacted differently.” Asked if students should be expelled for fighting, Turner replied: “You’re not going to hear that from me, you’re not going to hear that from the superintendent, you’re not going to hear that from any of the administrators.”
Worst of all, some teachers pointed out, the policy removed teachers’ power to require offending students to apologize or to clean up the messes they made. As a result, teachers lamented, these children never had the opportunity to improve self-control and learn from their mistakes. As the first semester came to an end, teachers were in crisis over the challenges they faced. “Many of us . . . often go home in tears,” one told Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario. “Please, don’t give us more staff development on racism or . . . how to de-escalate a student altercation. . . . We teachers feel as if we are drowning.”
December 4, 2015, marked a turning point. That day, at Central High School, a 16-year-old student body-slammed and choked a teacher, John Ekblad, who was attempting to defuse a cafeteria fight. Ekblad was hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury. In the same fracas, an assistant principal was punched repeatedly in the chest and left with a grapefruit-size bruise on his neck. At a press conference the next day, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi branded rising student-on-staff violence “a public health crisis.” Assaults on St. Paul school staff reported to his office tripled in 2015, compared with 2014, and were up 36 percent over the previous four-year average. Attacks on teachers continued unabated in the months that followed. In March, for example, a Como Park High teacher was assaulted during a classroom invasion over a drug deal, suffered a concussion, and required staples to close a head wound.
One mother told the Pioneer Press that her seventh-grade son was viciously kicked in the groin. But “when I asked the principal why she had not contacted police, she told me, That’s your job. ” Another mother told the paper that her son had been cut with an X-ACTO knife at school. When she asked why police had not been told, an administrator drew a map to the nearest station on the back of a business card, she said. After the mother contacted the police, the first assailant was charged with misdemeanor assault and the second with a felony.
As 2015 drew to a close, violence and anarchy had increased so dramatically that suspensions—though a last resort—finally began to rise. In December, Silva announced that first-quarter suspensions were the highest in five years. Seventy-seven percent involved black students, who make up 30 percent of the district’s student population. As public outrage mounted, families of all races began flooding out of the St. Paul district to charters and suburban schools. Many families are saying that “their children . . . don’t feel safe even going to the bathroom,” Joe Nathan of the St. Paul–based Center for School Change told the Star Tribune in 2016. Parents were also troubled by district students’ declining reading and math scores. The district lost thousands of students, adding up to millions of dollars in lost state aid.
Asians, the St. Paul district’s largest minority, especially resented the new discipline regime. These students—primarily of Hmong and other Southeast Asian backgrounds—tend to be well-behaved and respectful of authority, though many struggle academically. Harding High School teacher Koua Yang said that he had lost about 20 Hmong students to the exodus. “All we hear is the academic disparity between the whites and the blacks,” he complained. “This racial equity policy, it’s not equitable to all races . . . . Why do we have to leave?”
At the federal level, the Obama administration also made “racial equity” in school discipline a top priority. In January 2014, the Departments of Education and Justice issued a “Dear Colleague” letter, laying out guidelines intended to compel school districts to adopt Silva-style discipline policies. Currently, federal investigations are under way in districts around the country. Some districts have entered into consent decrees; the feds threatened to sue others or withhold funds if their racial numbers didn’t pass muster. Federal officials have seemed unconcerned that violence and disorder have followed implementation of racial-equity-inspired discipline policies—not only in St. Paul but also in districts such as Oklahoma City and New York. With Donald Trump taking office in January 2017, these initiatives could be rolled back—but the incoming president has described his top priorities as immigration, health care, and jobs, and whatever changes might be in the offing will likely take time.