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.”
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.