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Changes urgently needed after educators abuse students

Two deeply disturbing cases of educators abusing students in the Anoka-Hennepin and Burnsville/Eagan/Savage districts came out recently. In one, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights concluded that two teachers in the Anoka-Hennepin School District created a “hostile, abusive environment” for a student.

In the second, a Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services arbitrator concluded that a principal in Burnsville/Eagan/Savage Independent School District 191 was “entirely inappropriate …” when he demanded that a kindergarten student stick his hand into a toilet. This put the student “at risk for contracting a ‘noro’ virus which causes the stomach flu … or might cause the student to have diarrhea, E-coli, hepatitis or salmonella.”

I think that every Minnesota school district — charter, private or parochial — should discuss review harassment and discipline policies before the 2009-10 school year starts.

Until contacted, neither Education Minnesota nor the Minnesota Elementary Principals Association had sent reactions to journalists on these cases. I hope they review the incidents with members. So should colleges preparing educators, and groups supporting families.

Friday’s Star Tribune notes that a St. Paul public schoolteacher who is on the A-H board is deeply disturbed by the incident and wants more done in the district. He’s absolutely right.

Details available online
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services (look under August 2009, ISD 191) provide details.

In brief, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigations found that two high-school teachers “made regular ‘gay’ jokes in the classroom, and did nothing to stop subsequent ‘homo and gay jokes’ by classmates, sometimes smiling and laughing after the students’

For example, when a social-studies class watched a swimming pool scene in the “Christmas Vacation,” movie, the teacher covered the screen and commented, ‘It’s OK if (the student) watches this because he isn’t into that sort of thing anyway … maybe if it was a guy.”

In another class, when one student “presented a report regarding a deer that had been molested, a student said to the teacher, ‘doesn’t that sound like something (the student perceived to be gay) would do?’ The teacher allegedly agreed and laughed.”

Promoted disrespect
Teachers are expected to promote respect. District and state investigations found that these teachers did the opposite.

Principal Ginny Karbowski told me that she was “shocked and saddened” by the incidents. District spokesperson Mary Olson didn’t know if the teachers or district apologized to the student. The district is paying the family $25,000.

Olson says the two teachers “have received letters of deficiency” and “one received 2 days of unpaid leave.” This sounds modest.

Asked for reaction, Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, responded in part, “As a rule, Education Minnesota does not comment on specific member cases. However, Education Minnesota does not condone harassment or discrimination in or out of the classroom.”

In the other case, a kindergarten student clogged a toilet with towels in a bathroom. The teacher asked the principal for help. The principal “directed the student to ‘reach in and remove the paper.'”

‘Entirely inappropriate’ directive
The principal should have explained the mistake and had the 6-year-old help clean the toilet. However, the arbitrator concluded that the principal’s “directive to the student was entirely inappropriate.”

Then, the principal did not call the parents to discuss the incident. The arbitrator wrote, “a call should have been made that same day … under these circumstances the principal would normally be the person expected to follow up with parents.”

The principal apologized. The arbitrator accepted the principal’s suggestion that he lose 15 days of pay, rejecting the school board’s decision to fire the principal. The arbitrator was way too easy on the principal.

Fred Storti, executive director of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association, told me that his group defended the principal as part of his membership benefits. Storti has not talked with the principal about the case. If the facts are as the arbitrator described, Storti believes the principal “did not made the best choice … (and) probably would not make the same decision again.”

Most educators encourage students. Many inspire youngsters. But it’s vital to acknowledge and learn from mistakes. These were serious mistakes.

Joe Nathan is a senior fellow and the director of the Center for School Change at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Haddayr Copley-Woods on 08/18/2009 - 11:35 am.

    Diane Cleveland and Walter Filson, the teachers who systematically and jointly harassed a student in the Anoka-Hennepin district, need to be fired. Immediately. We have tons of licensed teachers looking for work right now who actually want to educate and empower students, not single them out and humiliate them.

    No amount of “training” is going to prevent bullies such as this from attacking and tormenting students. There is absolutely no way this was a “training” problem. This is a bullying problem, and bullies need to face the consequences of their actions or they will simply continue doing it. Additionally, Students at the Anoka-Hennepin district need to be protected from these hateful people.

    The union also needs to step up. Unions were not made for protecting clearly incompetent and evil people. Diane Cleveland and Walter Filson need to get out of our school and away from children NOW.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/18/2009 - 12:33 pm.

    Sadly, just as many corporate leaders will not protect their customers from shoddy merchandise or dangerous/toxic products, or their employees from dangerous working conditions unless failure to do so is going to cost them a great deal of money, so there are insensitive, dysfunctional teachers who will laugh when students in their classrooms target their more vulnerable peers or may even target those peers themselves unless their jobs are on the line (and even this may not help if they are sufficiently dysfunctional).

    Both of these teachers sound like others I have known who, due to adolescent trauma in their own younger lives are still seeking the acceptance of the “cool” kids in their classrooms by participating with those kids in abusing those who are vulnerable. Some of these teachers were among the “cool” kids when they were in school, some were among the vulnerable, but all need help to discover and heal the experiences that leave them unable to function in their classrooms as the type of adults we need and expect teachers to be.

    Doing as Anoka-Hennepin and even as the judge has now ordered B.E.S. to do gives a clear, simple message: “It’s no big deal” to endanger the health of a kindergarten student nor is it any big deal to drive a student or allow a student to driven out of your school system by allowing or even participating in harassment of that student.

    This is a very destructive message because it gives aid and comfort to all those other teachers out there who are, due to their own dysfunctions, doing the same things in their own classrooms day after day.

  3. Submitted by Grace McGarvie on 08/18/2009 - 02:49 pm.

    Teaching a 6 year old to undo something they did wrong is NOT destructive. That principal should be applauded. He had the child remove what the child had done from a clean toilet bowl and then had the child wash his hands twice. I would have shook the principal’s hand if it was my child. This was not bullying behavior, like the Anoka Hennepin teachers, it was instructive behavior about logical consequences. Someone had to remove the paper and the one who put it in is the logical one to do it.

  4. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 08/18/2009 - 03:08 pm.

    Thanks for peoples’ reactions. Obviously, I agree with the comments people made about Anoka Hennepin.

    Re the Burnsville area principal – I agree that the student should have helped clean up the toilet. But there are lots of ways to clean a toilet besides sticking your hand into it.

    The state mediator wrote that what the principal demanded of the student was “entirely inappropriate.” The mediator wrote that the principal had entirely inappropriate …” when he demanded that a kindergarten student stick his hand into a toilet. This put the student “at risk for contracting a ‘noro’ virus which causes the stomach flu … or might cause the student to have diarrhea, E-coli, hepatitis or salmonella.”

    The principal also did not notify the parents about what had happened.

    This is a principal that the district has had lots of problems with. The mediator noted that he is the only principal in the district who is on an improvement plan.

    So I thank each of your for responding. But is this the kind of principal we should be applauding?

    Joe Nathan

  5. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 08/18/2009 - 05:25 pm.

    I am appalled that anyone would ask anyone else to clean out a toilet using an ungloved hand. Numerous diseases, including life threatening diseases, could be caused by exposure to pathogens in toilets. There are good reasons that medical staff wear gloves when they might be exposed to any bodily secretions. No less protection should be offered to others.

    Washing hands two times after the exposure does not offer adequate protection–especially when one can be almost certain that this principal does not know the appropriate technique for thorough hand washing.

    At minimum, the principal involved must certainly be lacking in intelligence. Such a person does not seem to have the intelligence required of a principal. In my view, he needs a job that matches what seems to be his limited capabilities.

    As to the two teachers, it is amazing they are still in the classroom.

    There is no shortage of individuals willing to work as teachers and principals. We deserve better personnel than these individuals in our schools.

  6. Submitted by Atlee Reilly on 08/19/2009 - 10:19 am.

    I wanted to thank Joe for his strong comments, especially in the case of the Anoka-Hennepin matter.

    I also wanted to add the following to the discussion:

    In 2008, expulsions in the District accounted for 33.6% of all expulsions in the state. (page 2)

    In 2007, expulsions in the District represented between 36.3% and 38.4% of expulsions in the state.

    While Anoka-Hennepin clearly felt its hands were tied in some way in taking disciplinary action against these educators, it does not appear to have similar difficulties when acting against students.

  7. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 08/19/2009 - 11:43 am.

    I am a bit surprised that Joe would comment on this. It seems he often goes to great lengths to fight a reputation of being against district run schools rather than being a proponent of ‘good schools’ of whatever type. Seemed a bit piling it on and unveiling his true antipathy to district schools. The consequence was indeed a logical one but not in this era in which common sense and fear of germs is more important than children learning the consequences of their behavior. What a surprise some of these kids have when they find themselves sent to prison at age 18 after years of “appropriate” discipline and indulgent parenting. The principal was foolish for not understanding the times in which he lives.

  8. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 08/20/2009 - 05:47 pm.


    Your apparent lack of understanding of the potential health impacts of exposure to pathogens is frightening. Please do not get a job in health care or food service. I would definitely not want my family to receive either health care or food provided by you.

    As to the ridiculous notion that someone will end up in prison if appropriate measures are taken to avoid unnecessary health risks, I can only shake my head. Frankly, I have never heard of one case where someone ended up in prison because they followed appropriate hygiene procedures. The principal apparently also engages in this type of bizarre thinking. This is the reason someone with more intelligence is needed in his job.

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