Aaron Benner, a fifth-grade teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota, scoffs at the notion that minority students are being unfairly targeted for discipline. “Anyone in his right mind knows that these [disciplined] students are extremely disruptive,” he says. Like districts across the county, the St. Paul public school system has been on a mission to lower the black suspension rate, following complaints by local activists and black parents. A highly regarded principal lost his job because his school had “too many” suspensions of black second- and fourth-graders. The school system has sent its staff to $350,000 worth of “cultural-proficiency” training, where they learned to “examine the presence and role of ‘Whiteness.’ ” The district spent another $2 million or so to implement an anti-suspension behavioral-modification program embraced by the Obama administration.
Benner sees the consequences of this anti-discipline push nearly every day in the worsening behavior of students. He overheard a fifth-grade boy tell a girl: “Bitch, I’ll f*ck you and suck you.” (“I wanted to throw him against the locker,” Benner recalls.) The boy’s teacher told Benner that she felt powerless to punish the misbehavior. “This will be one of my black men who ends up in prison after raping a woman,” observes Benner. Racist? Many would so characterize the comment. But Benner is black himself—and fed up with the excuses for black misbehavior. He attended one of the district’s cultural-proficiency sessions, where an Asian teacher asked: “How do I help the student who blurts out answers and disrupts the class?” The black facilitator reminded her: “That’s what black culture is”—an answer that echoes the Obama administration’s admonitions to teachers. “I should have said: ‘How many of you shouted out in college?’ ” Benner remarks. “They’re trying to pull one over on us. Black folks are drinking the Kool-Aid; this ‘let-them-clown’ philosophy could have been devised by the KKK.”
Tired of writing up disciplinary referrals that had no further effect, Benner finally did the unthinkable: he spoke out to St. Paul’s board of education last December. “Disruptive students cannot remain in my room and affect those who want to learn,” he pleaded. Even more controversially, he laid the primary responsibility for student misbehavior on parents and community leaders, rather than on racism and cultural insensitivity. The “achievement gap / suspension gap is a black issue. My community must take the lead in correcting our children’s behavior,” he said.
What do you suppose happened to Aaron Benner? You don’t really wonder, do you?
The response was predictable. “People who think like that are like the people who believe that [black people] are . . . less than civil or human,” Victoria Davis, an education advocate with St. Paul’s NAACP chapter, told the local Star Tribune. An e-mailer called Benner a “tie-wearing Uncle Tom.” Benner remains undaunted. The refusal to hold students accountable only guarantees their future failure, he says.
Allen Zollman describes some of the “subjective” offenses that urban teachers routinely encounter: “Calling out, engaging in conversation across the room, dancing at one’s seat, loud singing, choral singing, exchanging insults, . . . talking back to the teacher, use of obscenity, insulting the teacher, . . . standing up and telling stories to the class, wandering around the classroom, . . . touching other students, [and] leaning into the hall and addressing passers-by.” None of this is conducive to an orderly lesson.
The other day, a student who is related to a friend of mine was talking in my presence about the new school year, and mentioned that a new teacher at her school was having a very tough time of it because the black girls in her class were doing exactly this. It forced the teacher to spend a lot of classtime trying to maintain basic order.