Teachers split on success of discipline in St. Paul schools


According to Roy Magnuson, a longtime teacher at Como Park High School, the Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies (PBIS) discipline model “is a wonderful set of ideas,” but its implementation is “going to produce lawsuits.” Magnuson, says PBIS is mostly a “smokescreen” that does nothing.

“Having a system to regulate teachers thinking about positive behavior works,” says Jasmine Smith, a Special Education Building Coach at Ramsey Middle School. “Many students get frustrated when all they hear is negative things.”

When it comes to discipline, what strategies succeed? PBIS is just one of the St. Paul Public Schools programs that affect discipline and racial equity in schools. The picture is as complicated as a Hmong paj ndau story cloth. Pull on the discipline thread, and other threads follow — not only PBIS, but also mainstreaming students, racial equity training for teachers, focusing on suspensions, and even principal bonuses. This article focuses on PBIS, but that’s only one part of the story, with more articles linked to our School Discipline page. We are still looking for more stories — your stories, from your perspective as a student, parent, teacher, principal, or district administrator.


SPPS: Discipline and disparities

When it comes to discipline, what strategies succeed? As part of its equity agenda to address pronounced disparities between white students and students of color — especially African American boys — in Saint Paul Public Schools, the district has implemented a number of strategies in the past few years. These include:

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), an approach to school discipline, which began in 2009 in select schools, with more schools being added each year;

• Mainstreaming ELL and EBD students who previously had been separated from regular classrooms, which was implemented in 2013-2014;

• Racial equity training from a group called Pacific Education Group (PEG), which started in 2010.

• Principal bonuses for the 2012-13 school year, with part of the bonus package targeted at reducing suspensions for students of color. According to school board member Mary Doran, that practice was discontinued this year. The bonuses were up to $3,000 but Doran said the average payout was $1,000.

The changes come at the same time as an enormous shift in populations of some schools as a result of the Strong Schools, Strong Communities Strategic Plan that began in 2011.

According to Toya Stewart Downey from the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) communications office, there are four levels of implementation of PBIS, including the first year Exploring stage, a second level of Initial Implementation, then Full Implementation, and finally Sustaining. SPPS schools are at various stages of implementation.

Teacher descriptions of their experience with PBIS are so far apart that it seems like they are in different worlds. Critics see nothing good in the program, while supporters see it as a work in progress that’s making school better.

Aaron Benner: Behavior has gotten worse

Aaron Benner, an African American teacher at John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary, who has been with the district for 19 years, said his school is in its first year of implementing PBIS, and he considers it a waste of time. “The underlying message is that you as a teacher are doing something wrong — you’re not doing enough positive interventions and that’s why we have suspensions.”

Suspensions at John A. Johnson have been at two percent each year since 2008, compared to the district average of about three percent for elementary schools. 2012-13 enrollment was 394 total – 183 African American, 88 Asian American, 71 Hispanic, 40 Caucasian, 12 Native American.

Benner believes behavior has actually gotten worse since PBIS has been implemented, because so much effort goes toward the problem children in the classroom. In his school, Benner says that if he sends a student to be disciplined by the administration, within 5-10 minutes, that child is back in the classroom.

Benner said he has witnessed fistfights in school, including incidents where teachers were punched, and not only was there no suspension, “there was no consequence.” “Kids want structure,” Benner said. “Now they are figuring out — oh, there’s a different set of rules — especially if I’m Black.”

Benner described an incident that he witnessed, with a sixth-grade male student threatening to beat up a girl. “He said, ‘I’m going to fuck you up and after I fuck you up I’m going to fuck you,” Benner said.

Then Benner “gently” tapped him on the shoulder and took him to his teacher. Benner told the teacher the boy had said inappropriate things. Benner said that the vice-principal told him he would handle it, but Benner did not think the child had been disciplined.  

CLARIFICATION: In his original interviews with TC Daily Planet, Aaron Benner recounted the incidents described above. After publication, he contacted us to clarify that they did not happen at his current school. Based on his May 5 statement about where and when the incident with the sixth grader students occurred, it appears that this was in a school that was not — at least at that time — implementing PBIS, so his account does not accurately represent any consequence of PBIS, though it still represents his criticism of discipline practices in general. 

Mary Moore: Teachers don’t see what we do

Mary Moore, a Special Education Building Coach at Battle Creek Middle School who is in her second year at the school, said that at her school, PBIS, which was implemented before she arrived at the school, is trying to teach desired behavior.

Battle Creek enrollment in 2012-13 was 799, with 302 Asian American, 288 African American, 127 Hispanic, 67 Caucasian and 15 American Indian students.

“We teach it and try to enforce it,” Moore said. Part of that teaching includes posters throughout the school as well as assemblies. “We talk about the desired behavior that we want,” she said, with the school giving rewards throughout the school day for kids that behave well. Rewards include things like school dances, which you have to have good behavior to attend, or certain classes that receive the most points for being positive, polite and prepared, get to have a no uniform day, which is announced on Fridays. Moore said you can hear the classes who win cheer each time.

According to Moore, some teachers don’t feel PBIS is enough, and would prefer to rely on the old way of doing things, where teachers would simply send kids out of class for misbehaving.

As a building coach, Moore is part of a team that sees kids in an intermediary step before they are sent to the principal. “I make a lot of parent phone calls,” she said. “Teachers don’t see what we do and how we try to get kids back on track.”

Moore said there are consequences in the case of serious situations, but the school works hard to be creative and to find alternatives to suspensions. For example, Special Ed students may be sent to the Educational Intervention Program (EIP), a separate school where they can go with more support. “Sometimes they come back changed, sometimes they don’t,” she said.

Moore believes the school needs more training for PBIS. “One thing that is missing is the relationship piece of PBIS,” she said. “It’s good to have incentives, but we need to dig a little deeper with it.” According to Moore, the school hasn’t had any PBIS training this year.

When she was at Humboldt, that school had gone a bit deeper working with a PBIS coach, with more frequent communications about the model. “I was more familiar with PBIS at Humboldt,” she said, “but we do more of the stuff here than at Humboldt.”

The punitive method doesn’t work, she said. “It’s easier to blame the kids and the behavior than reflect on our teaching practice.”

Roy Magnuson: Too many fights

According to Magnuson, at Como Park Senior High, “PBIS says in the halls I should be appropriate with my language — it has nothing to do with kids attacking each other.” He said parents are furious about the fights happening in school. “We are doing nobody a favor when we condone that kind of behavior,” he said.

“I have a very hard time telling parents that they should keep their kids in Saint Paul schools and that breaks my heart,” Magnuson said. In his view, the district is allowing the most disruptive, the least safe students to completely dominate the entire educational experience,” Magnuson said. “We used to go several weeks without a fight — now we don’t go a week.”

Como Park Senior High enrollment in 2012-13 was, with 454 Asian American, 428 African American, 355 Caucasian, 127 Hispanic,  and 20 American Indian students.

Juli Malcolm: Things are better in the hallway

Juli Malcolm, a teacher at Crossroads Elementary, said PBIS and the district’s racial equity training (provided by the Pacific Education Group — PEG) work nicely together. Malcolm said PEG helps provide context and validation for why teachers are being asked to do discipline in a more positive way.

Absolutely PBIS goes well with PEG,” she said. “It’s not having such a top down structure and allowing kids to be who they are and the cultural perspective they are coming from.”

Crossroads Elementary has two programs – Crossroads Montessori and Crossroads Science. Crossroads Montessori has a 2012-13 enrollment of 353, with 126 Caucasian, 110 African American, 74 Asian American,38 Hispanic and 5 American Indian students. Crossroads Science has a 2012-13 enrollment of 386, with 182 African American, 80 Asian American, 73 Caucasian, 44 Hispanic and 7 American Indian students. Both programs have one percent suspension rates. 

According to Malcolm, teachers and students are less stressed since PBIS has been implemented. “Things are better in the hallway,” she said. “The yelling doesn’t get too extreme.”

The main difference in PBIS, for Malcolm, is that teachers don’t expect kids to be perfectly quiet. The key point, she said, is building relationships, and getting students to feel like they are part of a team, “like they belong,” she said.

Bruce Ringaman: PBIS takes too much time

Bruce Ringaman, who has been a teacher since 1998, said he moved to Como Park High school three years ago from Harding after an incident where a student said to him, ‘”I’m going to beat you so bloody you’ll never teach again.’” Now at Como Park High, Ringaman believes the PBIS model just isn’t enough support for teachers who struggle with discipline issues, and that simply focusing on the positive doesn’t work.

As a teacher, Ringaman has been instructed to redirect students and take actions such as moving a student’s seat for the day. If they don’t respond to that, they are moved into the hall for a conversation, and then a call to their parents. If the student is defiant in any of these requests, the teacher can refer them to the office.

Given how many prep hours he has to put in, Ringaman finds all of this a huge sacrifice in time. He said the well-behaved students who want to learn suffer the most.

Jasmine Smith: PBIS can work — if teachers use it

Jasmine Smith, a Special Education Building Coach at Ramsey Middle School, said her PBIS committee had a rough start to the year, especially because of all the changes that were made, not just with mainstreaming but also with Strong Schools, Strong Communities.

While Smith is a proponent of PBIS, she believes it needs more oversight and “a realistic look at our numbers in the classrooms.” Her school now uses a lot of Google Docs that track the race of students who are sent out of the classrooms, but more needs to be done with those numbers, she said. When a principal presents data for a given school,  “How is that principal being held accountable?  Where is that conversation going?” she asked.

Ramsey Middle School has a 2012-13 enrollment of 581, with 249 African American, 134 Caucasian, 125 Asian, 62 Hispanic and 11 Native American students.

As part of its PBIS implementation, the school created “Rams Tickets,” which were handed out to students who exhibited positive behavior, with the idea being that staff were “teaching and re-teaching expectations and modeling behavior,” she said. The training involved trying to change from focusing on negative behavior — rule breaking — to positive behavior that would result in winning a ticket and receiving compliments for doing the right thing. For example, a teacher instead of telling a student to take their hood off, would thank a student for not running in the hall.

Smith feels that PBIS isn’t being done with any fidelity by many of the teachers. “We’ve told teachers about the tickets. We’ve explained tickets. If you don’t force them to do something, they won’t do it,” she said. “Some teachers do it and some don’t.”

According to Smith, publicity around mainstreaming has caused some teachers to become hyper-focused on the negative. “It’s a crazy environment,” she said. “People see what they want to see. They are hyper-focused on things that were always happening.”

Smith doesn’t believe behavior has been any worse this year than in past years. Talk about behavior, however, has escalated. She says, “The amount of gossiping and stories around the district — it’s at a higher level than I’ve ever seen.”

Parents weigh in

Parents have differing opinions on the discipline issue, depending on the school their children attend. Bobbi Bergstedt, whose child attends Murray Middle School, says her daughter has complained many times that behavior is a problem in her classes.

“She has mentioned many times not being able to get through the material in science class,” Bergstedt said. “When I went to conferences at her school I met with the science teacher and he informed me that 18 of the 20 some students in the class have behavior issues.” This year, the school began having a very short passing time as one method to address behavior.

Still, some schools have less discipline issues than others. Jeannine Coulombe, whose child attends JJ Hill, said the school spends considerable time and effort to cultivate a culture of peaceful conflict resolution. “She has never come home and talked about fights and for the most part it seems pretty mellow whenever I’ve visited,” Coulombe said. “It is a very diverse school. It is a Montessori magnet, which the Montessori methods of discipline fall in line with a lot of the responsive classroom disciplinary methods. I do think there is something to having a structure where the child is responsible for his/her actions and is responsible for controlling his/her actions and having guidance to make better choices.”

This article is part of a series looking at changes Saint Paul Public Schools has made to address disparities in how the district handles discipline. Check the links below and our School Discipline page for the other pieces of the series that delve more deeply into issues of race and discipline, as well as how Special Education has become a controversial piece of the puzzle.

CORRECTION: Toya Stewart Downey’s name was incorrectly written as Toya Stewart – that has been corrected.