“If Adults Would Have Reacted Differently”: what we should be talking about when it comes to SPPS

“Kill the Indian Save the Man” Capt. Richard H. Pratt

Saint Paul Public Schools has been in the media often over the past several months mainly due to their contract with Pacific Education Group (PEG) and the discipline policy aimed at curbing suspensions for students of color.  Yesterday they were in the news once again, and once again the rhetoric and resulting frame does little to actually shed light on the situation, nor, more importantly, on potential solutions.

The Pioneer Press article details a rough week in Saint Paul schools, there were fights,  police tased a student, and to top it off, a gun was found in a students backpack. Nobody disagrees that these things are problems. Everybody wants to create a safe and healthy school. The tension comes when we start to think about potential solutions.

On one side of the spectrum are folks like Aaron Benner and Joe Soucheray who seem to believe in the more traditional and punitive forms of punishment such as suspensions and expulsions. They place the blame squarely on the students and, as Soucheray claims, poor parenting. Besides the racist overtones, this approach assumes the benevolence of the large society. It removes any responsibility from us for creating the conditions which facilitate and feed the anger and pain these students are literally fighting their way through. It perpetuates the idea that students, specifically students of color, have a deficit which schools are charged to remedy.

On the other end of the spectrum are those of us who believe that there are reasons young people are acting out. We know that poverty breds violence. We know that trauma marks too many of our young people and their communities. Superintendent Silva said as much at her press conference when she said students are bringing stress from poverty and other issues with them into the classroom. And why wouldn’t they? But that doesn’t mean we are helpless.

As adults debate back and forth about PEG and Positive Behavior Intervention the question about how to heal remains largely ignored. What we refuse to engage is the hard truth of how our country is marked by white supremacy and racism. PEG is right: racial bias largely marks the interaction of teachers and students because we live under white supremacy. If PEG is failing it is because they aren’t explicit enough about how to combat that reality.

Culture is the solution. Without culture there is no hope for creating schools that serve all our citizens. Culture is what roots us in values and traditions and establishes norms. In America this means whiteness. And that’s not a good thing because whiteness is not real. Whiteness is a social construct meant to be a wedge between poor people and landowning elite. It’s only tradition is violence; it’s only purpose is to legitimize inequality. It is nonculture. How can systems setup to protect whiteness ever be sites of positivity? What’s more astounding is we expect young people to be willingly assimilated into culturelessness. We scratch our heads and ask “what’s wrong with them?”

Contrary to what Brenner, Soucheray, and their ilk would have you believe the responsibility lays squarely on our shoulders: those of us that are living cultureless. If we are genuine in our desire to end the suspension disparity; if we truly want an end to the opportunity gap; if we mean what we say and want to see schools be places that help shape healthy and productive people engaged in their learning, we must engage in the real cultural work this task calls for. To leave this aspect out will only further perpetuate the trauma of whiteness, and we can expect little progress.

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7 thoughts on ““If Adults Would Have Reacted Differently”: what we should be talking about when it comes to SPPS

  1. Aaron, I agree with everything you stated. We raised 2 daughters in St. Paul and they are the excellent products of that school system. I am a retired educator (44 years of regular/special ed. and media specialist). I worked in the Mpls. schools, Roseville schools, and Mounds View schools. I also taught for a short time in North Platte Neb. I believe I have experienced the spectrum of settings. From those experiences I have concluded: white priviledge exists, most white folks are not even aware that it exists, people want quick solutions to problems, there are no quick solutions, ignorance breeds misunderstanding, blaming and shaming breeds fear, resentment and anger.

    There are more educators who are deeply committed to equity and closing acheivement gaps than those who are not. I believe the solutions are to work together without blame or shame or fear. We need to make sure our curriculums are inclusive and that educators truly appreciate the power of providing “windows and mirrors’ for all of our students. We need to decrease the amount of testing our students and staff have to endure and make sure that tests provide data that directly impacts how we target and teach skills that are needed to make expected yearly progress.

    There are more educators than those who are not who want to figure out ways to change attitudes and behaviors so that all students and staff can feel safe and excited about learning. We need to train all staff to provide consistent, fair and understandable behavioral interventions. We need the support staff to back up the classroom teachers so that they can focus on the huge responsibilities they face every day. (PBIS, SEED, Positive Classrooms…) Pick a proven program or hybrid or develop a district model and train all staff and provide continued training and forums for discussion to keep the models alive. Too often schools try something for a few years and then find the next big thing and switch and start all over. Pick one and train, retrain, support, allow for discussion and disagreement, refine and keep on going. But it needs to happen district wide if it is going to be effective and it needs the staff and resources to be sustained. While the model is being developed, schools also need to have consistent, fair and reliable behavioral exception and consequences set in place. Again they need the staff to implement these policies. The St. Paul Schools policies that are now in place are not being followed consistently and need to be updated and enforced.

    And last of all STOP BLAMING TEACHERS! There is nothing more demoralizing than feeling like all the hard work, care and concern that you bring to the job every day is not only not appreciated but that you can never get it right. That somehow you are to blame. That just has to stop right now!

  2. So…. I’ll speak from my experience. I’m fascinated by the “black and white” of all of this. Where do the Asian, Latino, mixed-race, and also black African kids fit in, in this construct that has been created about the racism our black students are encountering? Como Park, for instance, has at least 30% more Asian kids than African-American. How many of the students involved in the fights were Asian, Latino, or African? Uh…. zero.
    In my two to three years listening about PEG (and, worse, how our District has interpreted PEG ideas, which I personally have watched PEG trainers express dismay with), I don’t know that I’ve heard the word “Asian.” Not once. Not Latino. Not African.
    Our ELL population, approximately the same size as the black population at Como Park, has been through equal (likely more) trauma: murdered parents, disappeared and abducted siblings, dead siblings, no food, no school for three to eight (!) years, being uprooted and running for their lives, being separated from parents for 10-15 years and then being reunited. That’s all in one of my classes. For real.
    Guess how many discipline issues there are in that class? Hmm…. try zero. None, never once. 41 students, most of whom have been through horrific trauma.
    I’m NOT trying to attack or diminish the trauma of our inner city kids. What I’m wondering is this: WHY do these students react so differently to their situations?
    I think it has to do with the lack of “hope” for the US-born black kids, vs.the kids who are fairly recent arrivals.

    Next: When a student is acting out, on maybe the 3rd day of school:

    Asian staff member, smiling and politely: “Please put your phone away, Amber, we are having a class discussion.”
    Amber: “Fuck you.”
    This all happens in front of 30+ students who are NOT acting out, but are watching and learning from the interaction.
    So. since you’re saying that the white construct (and the African-American Aaron Benner) prefer “punishment” for the student, that’s apparently out. Maybe a behavior coach?

    My question: What kind of reaction/ consequence stops the student from repeating this behavior? Or due to having experienced trauma/difficulties, does the class and teacher need to continue listening to this, day after day? Because in the current construct, the answer is yes.

    When a Latino or Asian student has the same interaction, should the consequence be the same?
    I’m super curious what the solution is to this problem. If the solution involves societal change or a long-term change to the worldview of teachers, that doesn’t solve what is happening RIGHT NOW in St. Paul.

    While I’m open to discussion about which Equity program works best in St. Paul, I’m fascinated that reactions from Soucheray and Benner (who have likely never agreed on anything) to specific events (20+ kids fighting at Como, a gun at Harding, melee at Humboldt) are that these kids need some kind of consequences that make them less likely to repeat this behavior.
    Answers like this article don’t, actually, talk about what I, as a staff member at this school, should be doing RIGHT NOW ABOUT THE STUDENT IN MY CLASS who is taking 5, 10, 15 minutes per day of instruction time away from the other 30 students (most of whom are neither white nor black, and, often, neither is the teacher).
    Stop hearing examples of real difficulty students and staff are dealing with and answer that we just need to eliminate racism. Sounds great. We need to do that.
    But that’s not convincing anyone that THIS is the way to do that.

    1. Thanks for your comment, I normally don’t respond but I am going to here because I think it’s important. You are playing whats called the oppression olympics and it’s dangerous. You are pahologizing Black students and using other groups to illustrate your point. That is how racism, and specifically anti-black racism, works. Many of the students in the other groups you mentioned are also in need of equity measures they just express it differently. But more than that I want to point out, again, how your (and others) rhetoric actually perpetuates the problem… Urgency is real but you don’t get to use it to avoid doing the work. Whiteness is the problem. Full Stop. So instead of wondering how we are going to save the kids from themselves ( we have to get over the saviorism already!) start thinking how you are going to work at unlearning whiteness. This is how you do something RIGHT NOW to help the situation. Will it make it all better on Monday? No. Is the work starting? Yes. Will it get better? If you keep doing the work.

  3. Thanks so much for the reply. It’s kind of perfect for what SPPS has been doing the past few years about the Equity Program (TM) that they paid for:
    “If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists.”

    I never said it’s ALL on the kids. But I like how, if I say we need to do this together, you say that’s wrong because of my “whiteness.”
    Your reply is in the sky, vague and pretty much a college thesis someone wrote who is applying it not to real life in an urban school.
    Especially enjoy the thing I can do RIGHT NOW to help the situation: I have to start unlearning whiteness. What do my Asian, Latino, mixed-race, and black coworkers and students need to do?
    Have the black students who DO come ready to learn need to stop being so white?
    Interestingly, I never said I was white, either.

    1. First of all, I am a teacher in city schools. Grew up in the city. Still live in the city. Still do all my work in the city. I use this framework everyday and see how it works everyday. So you can miss me with that whole this is just theory nonsense. Second, whiteness, if you bother to do the knowledge, is not about skin color, it’s a worldview and system of knowledge. The fact that you are missing this fundamental aspect let’s me know you have a lot of work to do around understanding how whiteness and white supremacy actually operates, in real life. Ain’t that ironic.

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