Katherine Kersten joins Brian Anderson to discuss how public school leaders in St. Paul, Minnesota abandoned student discipline—and unleashed mayhem—in the name of “racial equity.”

In January 2014, the Obama administration’s Departments of Education and Justice issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to every school district in the country, laying out guidelines to local officials for how to avoid racial bias when suspending or expelling students. Equity proponents view “disparate impact”—when the same policies yield different outcomes among demographic groups—as conclusive proof of discrimination.

But nearly half a decade before that order was announced, the superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools had already embarked on a crusade to dismantle the purported “school-to-prison pipeline”—with disastrous effects for teachers and students.

Read Katherine’s piece in the Winter 2017 Issue of City Journal, “No Thug Left Behind.”

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: During the Obama years, the federal government’s education bureaucracy made addressing racial equity in K through 12 school discipline one of its top priorities.  In January of 2014, the U.S. Department of Education, along with the Department of Justice, sent one of its infamous “Dear Colleague” letters to every school district in the country, laying out guidelines to local officials to avoid racial bias when suspending or expelling students, or else face federal lawsuits.  But nearly half a decade before that order was announced, public school leaders in St. Paul, Minnesota, had already embarked on an ambitious crusade to dismantle the purported “school-to-prison pipeline.”  The former superintendent of St. Paul public schools repeatedly claimed that white privilege was the root cause of the disparities in punishment, that teachers were being culturally ignorant and insensitive to student needs.  In 2011 that superintendent ordered all St. Paul schools to dramatically reduce the suspension rates for African-American students, in addition to other racial equity policies enacted during her tenure.  But what happens to teachers, parents, and students when schools apply these contentious social justice ideas to classroom discipline?  Joining me today to discuss that question and what happened in St. Paul public schools is Katherine Kersten.  She is a writer and attorney, a Senior Fellow at the Center for the American Experiment which is based in Minnesota, and a first-time contributor to City Journal.  Her wonderful and informative essay “No Thug Left Behind” appeared in our Winter 2017 issue and you can find it on our website.  Katherine, thanks for joining us.

Katherine Kersten: It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Brian Anderson: So when the Obama administration ordered schools to tackle racial disparities in student discipline, St. Paul schools, as I had mentioned, were already pursuing this goal.

Katherine Kersten: Correct.

Brian Anderson: Exactly what types of programs were enacted in St. Paul and how did teachers then approach discipline differently after the reforms were announced?

Katherine Kersten: Yes, well when the superintendent you mentioned, Valeria Silva, came into the St. Paul schools as superintendent in late 2009, she was an impassioned advocate of the racial equity approach to school discipline and her first act was to basically require teachers to begin to think of themselves in racial terms at every level.  And she hired a group out of California called the Pacific Educational Group to lead teachers – not just teachers, but school bus drivers, and janitors, and school board members, lunch ladies, everybody who worked for the St. Paul public schools – in what this group calls courageous conversations about race, which is really about indoctrinating everyone to believe that white privilege is at the bottom of the racial equity of school discipline gap.  She did that for a number of months, and then she proceeded to reduce meaningful penalties and lower behavior expectations for students.  She also removed, or the school board, at her behest, removed continual willful defiance as a suspendable offense.  And as time went on she injected into regular classrooms hundreds and hundreds of emotionally and behaviorally challenged students who were disproportionately black without special assistance to teachers that would follow that.  So the stage was really set for the disaster that we saw unfold in the 2015-16 school year.

Brian Anderson: Well let’s get to that in a minute.  But there was a racial disparity in punishment at the school, right?  The…

Katherine Kersten: Yeah.

Brian Anderson: …the African-American kids, the black kids, were being disproportionately punished.

Katherine Kersten: Which is true of course across the nation.  It’s interesting in St. Paul because our largest student group is actually Asian.  We have the largest Hmong Southeast Asian population in the nation, so they make up about a third of the student population.  Black students are right behind that at 30%.  White students are 22%.  And in the years that we are talking about, the years that Valeria Silva was concerned about black students, I think one – something like 15% of black students received at least one suspension during a school year.  That was five times more than the suspension rate for white students, and fifteen times higher than the suspension rate for Asian students.  And Valeria Silva’s idea was, who knows why, that it would be inequitable if black students were suspended at more than twice the rate of the lowest suspended group, which of course is Asian students, to that would have required a huge change in school discipline practices.

Brian Anderson: So what happened after these reforms were enacted?  Were charges – did the teachers follow suit and stop charging students, African-American students with disorderly conduct charges?  Or what followed?

Katherine Kersten: Yes, well things unraveled pretty quickly.  At one point in Valeria Silva’s tenure, principals’ bonuses were actually tied to their performance when it came to reducing black students’ suspension rates.  So of course you began to see some pretty significant changes immediately.  Teachers were very hesitant to report black students for discipline referrals.  When they did, teachers complained that very often there was simply no follow-up on the part of school leadership, which was of course an attempt to keep black discipline referrals and suspensions rate artificially low to keep this problem out of the public eye.  But it was impossible to keep things under wraps.  Pretty quickly we saw major fights happening.  In fact, when at the beginning of the school year, in September, there were huge brawls at four high schools.  Police had to be called with up to 50 students fighting.  There was an increase in student groups just rampaging through the halls, just completely out of control.  There was a major increase in what teachers dub classroom invasions, which means that students would just charge into classrooms where they had no business to take revenge for some personal slight or for a drug deal gone bad, and most worryingly assaults on – by students – on staff really escalated, in some cases with truly tragic results.

Brian Anderson: At what point did local leaders realize that things were getting out of hand?  That they had inadvertently created a complete breakdown in order?

Katherine Kersten: Well, it’s interesting because teachers – I think most people would agree that public school teachers on average tend to be a pretty liberal group and they tend to be extremely conscious of avoiding any appearance of racial bias.  But the teachers themselves began to rebel and at one point a St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist solicited responses from teachers in the St. Paul public schools about these new discipline policies and he was absolutely overwhelmed by anonymous reports from teachers with the most extreme language you can imagine, like we are drowning, my life has been destroyed, my husband can hardly get out of bed in the morning he’s so despondent and fearful about going into his classroom.  Teachers and the Teachers Union began to really push back and the kind of turning point for them was December 4, 2015, when a very popular and beloved teacher at one of the high schools was body-slammed and choked by a 16-year-old student when he tried to deescalate a cafeteria fight.  I think it had started over you know, an argument over football scores or something.  And he was taken to a hospital and hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury and still is suffering the effects from that.  And that followed on so many attacks on teachers and staff that the teachers had finally publicly had enough and they threatened to go on strike over school safety issues.

Brian Anderson: Even as all of this was going on, another consequence was, as you describe in your story, that Asian families began moving their children out of the public schools.  Could you…

Katherine Kersten: Correct.

Brian Anderson: …talk about that a little bit?

Katherine Kersten: Yes.  Well the Asian students, although they struggle academically as a group, are as a group extremely well-behaved and respectful of authority.  And these families began to take a look at what’s happening in their student’s classroom, they saw that math and reading scores were falling, they saw that their kids were in many cases afraid to go to school, and they began to move out of the St. Paul district.  That doesn’t mean necessarily they moved out, although some of them did move their residences, but we have basically open enrollment here in Minnesota, so they were able to transfer their kids to other suburban schools or to charter schools, and a real exodus began.  And in the article that I wrote for City Journal I quote one Asian teacher saying well what is this racial equity stuff?  This is – nobody is paying attention to our population and we are the ones who are suffering the most.  And of course it resulted in millions of dollars in lost state aid to the St. Paul public schools.

Brian Anderson: The superintendent to introduce these policies, these disastrous policies, was fired finally by the school board in 2016.

Katherine Kersten: Yes.

Brian Anderson: Has the…

Katherine Kersten: Yes.

Brian Anderson: …has the district made any effort to roll back some of these discipline policies and was the discipline breakdown the reason she was fired?

Katherine Kersten: Well the discipline breakdown was a – yeah, I would say it was the reason she was fired.  You know, there’s always a complex of reasons, but it was by far the overwhelming reason that she was fired.  And as I said, it was teachers themselves, the Teachers Union, and then individual teachers who precipitated that they launched a petition drive to have her let go and she had – her contract had just been renewed shortly before that – but they had really had enough.  And there were black leaders, Asian leaders, white leaders in St. Paul who signed a letter in the Pioneer Press calling for her dismissal, so yes.  That was the reason.  In terms of what has happened since, there has been an interim superintendent, a new superintendent will be named in April.  We have not had the kind of high-profile, major student altercations involving dozens of students and chemical irritants used by police and that kind of thing, but you know the racial equity mantra goes on.  People are just fearful to call for personal responsibility on the part of students.  So there has been a change in the way that so-called school resource officers, that is police officers in the school, in their role they can’t wear the uniforms anymore.  They have to wear these baby blue polo shirts so they won’t be intimidating.  The policy is that arrests are absolutely last resort, which means only for arson or for firearm possession, that kind of thing.  So the school officials have been told its their responsibility to control students who are fighting and you know, possessing alcohol and drugs, sexual violence, that kind of thing.  And once this kind of idea takes hold it is really hard to shake but we certainly haven’t seen, at least in terms of newspapers reports or anything of that kind, the sorts of assaults on teachers that were so devastating last year.

Brian Anderson: Thanks, Katherine.  It is a really cautionary tale.  Katherine Kersten’s alarming essay “No Thug Left Behind” is available, as I had mentioned at the outset, in the Winter issue of City Journal and on our website, www.City-Journal.org.  We would also love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal with the hashtag #10Blocks.  Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  Thanks for listening and thank you again, Katherine, for joining us.

Katherine Kersten: Great pleasure.

Photo by Georgia Court / iStock

More from 10 Blocks