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Punished for advocacy: A Minnesota teacher’s victorious legal battle against retaliation over race-focused discipline policy

Aaron Benner‘s “aha” moment came in 2011. He was standing on the John A. Johnson Elementary School playground when he was punched in the chest by a fourth-grade student.

Benner had been observing students at the St. Paul, Minnesota school when, during recess on an overcast day, a frustrated boy took his aggression out on the then-19-year veteran educator.

But a swift punch to the chest would prove to be the least of the pushback Benner would receive over the course of an eight-year battle in which he fought for students just like the boy who had assaulted him.

That black boy, who planted his fist into the thorax of the only black male teacher at the school, was a wake-up call for Benner, as he saw his school quickly devolve into a place where acts of violence were commonplace, while he and other teachers were asked to stand by.

What would happen after that moment on the school playground, until a September 2019 resolution, would prove to be a battle riddled with irony and tension on the complex topic of race and equity.

Benner’s story ends with a $525,000 settlement he received in September. It was a “bittersweet” conclusion, he said. The judge found merit in Benner’s claim that his employer, administrators at St. Paul Public Schools, repeatedly and methodically used complaints and investigations against him as means to create an adverse work environment until Benner ultimately resigned in 2015 in order to preserve his career.

But what shot administrators’ interest in Benner into high-gear, immediately followed a speech he delivered one year before, in which he criticized the school system’s racial equity policy during a May 2014 school board meeting.

“I have a dream that my four children will one day be judged by the content of their character, but not by the color of their skin… I’m here again because I believe we are crippling our black children by not holding them to the same expectations as other students. I am here because black students can and should behave in any classroom, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity of their teacher… Cussing out your teacher is not black culture. Refusing to do work is not black culture. Not following directions is not black culture. Hitting other students is not black culture. And assaulting your teacher is not black culture. So I’m asking this school district to ask the black community – my community – ‘what is black culture?’”

Throughout the ordeal, Benner was met with irony as he sought to uphold standards for his minority students. He said that even his white counterparts, who had broken school policies, were not disciplined nor investigated as Benner was, who in 2005, had been nominated Minnesota Teacher of the Year and who had not once had a complaint lodged against him until after his “I have a Dream” speech.

Benner was singled out for his outspokenness in which he was advocating for the black population. And he was black. And he spoke out about black students and a need for discipline.  Benner said he didn’t see it as punitive to discipline his students, but rather as a way to help the kids grow and mature into productive and respectful young adults, just as what their white peers were being taught through the schools’ discipline practices.  Anything less, Benner said, was simply “fraud.”

“[Saint Paul Public Schools] was trying to show how great a school district they were by displaying their low suspension numbers. But in reality, the ‘books were cooked.’  Low numbers were tied to money by the federal government. School districts across the country were getting penalized for their disparities and suspensions. So, Saint Paul decided to close that gap by allowing black students to have lenient-to-no consequences for their behavior,” he told the Gunpowder Gazette.

He said he was outspoken due to his concern for his minority students.

“Other students of all races started to question the unfair treatment. Even black students were questioning what they were witnessing. My black students were outraged. Some of them were getting bullied by other black students,” He told the Gunpowder Gazette. “I loved every one of my students. We had a safe classroom and had a special bond,” Benner said. “That may have been since I was a male teacher or that I was black and male.”

Once his legal battle began, Benner said that even some of his own students supported his pushback against the school system. “I had so many former students – some in their mid-30s – contact my attorney stating they wanted to testify on what they learned from me and how I helped them become adults. It was shocking and humbling to have so many students want to share how they felt and what they learned from me. Most people don’t realize I learned so much from my students. I learned how resilient they were and how they found (how to) block out the chaos of our schools and still be successful,” Benner said.

But what led to this chapter in Benner’s life was when he would not accept a different standard being set for his students under an “equity discipline” policy.

“I have a hard time with the term equity,” Benner said. “When I look up equity in the dictionary, I see the word ‘fairness.’  But, he said, “It seems like social justice activists think ‘equity’ means ‘equal outcomes,’ and not fairness. They hijacked the term. My definition of racial equity and their definition of racial equity are different. ‘What is equity?’  If people truly think equity is equal outcomes, it’s not really fairness.”

Benner said the disruption to his students wasn’t fair. The disruption to teachers wasn’t fair.  The disruption to a safe and productive learning environment wasn’t fair. And that the lack of action for these black students – particularly boys – wasn’t fair, especially as their white peers were being disciplined with more fidelity.  And this was being done simply to narrow the gap between white and black student suspension rates, Benner said.  To make it appear as though the gap between the sub-populations was resolving at John A. Johnson Elementary School.  But he said doing so was actually harming the kids, not helping them.

“When you allow black kids to have bad behavior in order to keep numbers low, that is not equity,” Benner said.  He said it wasn’t actually fair to them. Benner said there is little doubt that this is the case – there is a significant gap, he said. For every one white student suspended, three black students are punished.

At the time, St. Paul Public Schools had instituted a policy to combat that racial disciplinary gap, hiring consultants from Pacific Education Group (PEG) to lead the school system. Federal guidance, designed to combat the disparate suspension rates, also came with funding to states which agreed to take it on. St. Paul schools hired PEG to lead the district on addressing the gap while training teachers in overcoming systemic racism.

Student suspensions lead to missed educational opportunities, loss of class time and isolation from students’ peers.  Every day out of school is a day without being taught, and high suspension numbers put kids behind, creating a snowball effect from which it is difficult to recover.

School systems across the country have been aggressively attempting to address the racial discipline gap since the federal government’s announcement of the Race to The Top initiative in 2009 – followed by federal guidance handed down in 2014 – which rewarded school systems with grant money in exchange for implementing policies intended to address the disparities in discipline across races.

But, “we have to have an honest discussion.  Because I think people are only looking at numbers,” Benner said. And he disagreed with PEG’s approach.

During his ordeal, Benner discovered that school administrators were receiving bonus checks to keep the black suspension numbers low. He said a senior employee complained to him that all of his pushback would interfere with his bonus that quarter. And administrators at his school were harvesting video clips from testimony he and another minority teacher gave – an Asian woman – at school board meetings.  Court records show that they intended to give those videos to PEG – the vendor who, at the time, had been awarded $4.5 million in contracts with the school system. However, video clips of white teachers’ similar testimony at the same school board meetings were not requested.

While the idea behind lowering suspensions is to put an end to the school-to-prison pipeline, which is when students encounter legal troubles early and continue down that track after leaving the education system, Benner said that by not teaching kids consequences for their behavior, which is designed to teach students cause-and-effect and right vs. wrong, that they are actually being set up for that very prison pipeline.

“We have been telling this group that ‘you’re okay to do that,’” Benner said. And he said he fears it will end, for some, in the exact place well-meaning social justice activists are trying to prevent: the criminal justice system.

“I want black men not to be crippled, but at the same time to know there is still racism.” Benner said that for his entire life and even throughout the ordeal with St. Paul Public School system, he dealt with plenty of racism – even on one of his last days during his legal battle.

Leading up to the settlement case this year, while dressed in a three-piece, blue pinstriped suit – “I was dressed better than I was for my own wedding,” he said – Benner went to the courthouse to meet with the judge for a meeting that would ultimately lead to the $525,000 settlement.  As he was going through security, the guard asked him, “What are you here for?  Criminal court is across the street.”   Benner was furious, but it was all too familiar.

“I am a black man. I know there is systematic racism,” Benner told The Gunpowder Gazette. “But being told that this is the way things are, and that there is nothing anyone can do about it,” as he was taught through his schools’ racial equity training, is not something he said he can tolerate.  “No, I want hope,” he said.

“I deal with racism every day.  I never forget that I am black. I love being black.” Benner said he’s been pulled over and treated as if he is a criminal due to the color of his skin. But he said that he wouldn’t want to be anyone else.

But when he was teaching at John A. Johnson Elementary School, he and his colleagues were told to treat students differently and specifically to reduce suspensions of black students, while keeping suspensions for white students the same. And he challenged that doing so was illegal, fraudulent and dangerous for his minority students.

“I don’t want kids arrested in the future because they have no skills.”  Without an education, with unchecked discipline and not being held to the same standards as their white peers, “prison is the only route to go,” Benner said.

In 2011, after being assaulted by that young boy and the boy returning to class ten minutes after being taken to the principal’s office, it was the last straw.  For months, Benner watched as kids in the school fought in hallways and assaulted each other and interrupted instructional time.

He saw that while consequences decreased, violent and disruptive behavior in the school increased.  He saw a child get slammed against a wall and lose consciousness and girls breasts being grabbed by boys as they walked the hallways.  All of this occurred without consequences and – without consequences – the frequency of occurrences increased.

After he spoke up at the school board meeting in 2014, within days, his schools’ administrators took notice.

From that moment on, Benner would undergo a series of unfounded misconduct investigations and warnings from his schools’ administration that threatened his reputation and career.  Until that time, he had not once been written up or reprimanded by any employer.

But as Benner’s case court showed, the “investigations” began after administrators first exchanged emails about his outspokenness.  The judge agreed.

Over the course of just one school year, administrators at Benner’s school initiated four official investigations, all of which were disputed; issued two written reprimands threatening “discharge;” barred Benner from making administrative decisions in his own classroom; gave him 24 hours – in the middle of the school year – to accept a school transfer that he did not request; and placed unruly students in Benner’s class after first firing his only classroom assistant.

Last month, St. Paul Public Schools settled with Benner rather than face trial.  Benner took the deal, but sacrificed getting to see his former administrators in court.  “Part of me was sad,” Benner said. “I wanted to go to trial… I wanted the facts to come out.  I wanted to see the people on the witness stand.”

Benner said he wanted to witness them explaining themselves on how they had lodged one investigation after another against a black man who was advocating for the well-being of young black men.

It was racism that bothered Benner, but the kind that targeted black kids and their behavior due solely to the color of their skin.  The harm, Benner said, was damage to the content of their character.  And he said the racial discipline policy is “a crippling mindset” for the black community.

“I think the answer is we have honest discussions on how to combat (racism). “An honest discussion on black Americans saying what they go through.” But, teaching students respect, self-reliance and teamwork are not opposing virtues; they all can co-exist,” Benner said. “I believe in that.”
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