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With a 6-year-old recently shooting a teacher in Virginia, and with lots of talk these days about accountability, perhaps the moment will provide some insight into teachers' rights to a safe workplace in Minnesota.
In 2016, Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law Teacher Protection Statutes (121A.64; 122A.42; 121A.53). These laws acknowledge a teacher's legitimate right to know which students have a history of violence. They give the general control of schools to teachers with authority to remove students from class for violent and disruptive conduct. And they require that physical assaults on a district employee must be reported to the commissioner of education. These statues were groundbreaking for two reasons:
- They recognized the teacher's right to govern a safe and secure classroom for all students.
- They were passed without any support from the Department of Education and the teachers union.
What happened? These provisions were sent to the Department of Education for implementation. With no action taken, they were then sent to the superintendent's association for implementation. Nothing happened there either. As a result of this response to this unprecedented legislation, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights sent a letter to 43 districts directing modification of discipline policies based on measures of racial differences.
Unfortunately, this set in place a system whereby teachers feared holding students accountable for malicious acts. With professional school resource officers being replaced by community members, chances increased for a volatile situation to develop. Consequently, children needing consistent guidance have continued to fall behind, with a drastic drop in academic achievement across-the-board. When teachers can't teach and instruction time is lost, standards drop.
Most teachers still do not know that these laws have their backs should they remove a disruptive student from their classroom. While these statutes support teachers' rights to remove students who intentionally threaten the well-being of classmates, where that student goes and for how long is then up to the district. In too many cases, threats and acts of aggression are pushed right back into class.
If you doubt this, ask your child's teacher. Better yet, ask the school principal about the school's procedures for enforcing these laws.
Good legislation will do nothing if it is ignored. Accountability is difficult to implement when it's not communicated. With fuzzy priorities and vague expectations for student behavior, accountability falls apart.
There are elements of these laws that can be strengthened — so our safe schools team has been again working with legislators this session to redraft them. And to provide awareness for teachers. We are encouraged by legislators' commitment to preventing harm to students. And teachers.
However, we recently discovered a new bill (MN HF 58/SF 69) prohibiting dismissals of K-3 students. Kids belong in school, but where do they go when their behavior threatens harmful acts to others? Social distance learning is one solution as students develop and demonstrate self accountability and regulation skills through guided practice.
Students must feel empowered to take ownership for their behavior as they strive for success. That only happens in a culture built on genuine collaboration, cooperation and teamwork within a safe community. Focusing on acceptance of responsibility, owning a mistake and sharing it is an important learning experience. Injuring others is a big mistake, no matter what grade. Lessons on accountability must begin K-3.
If you are a teacher or a parent of a student, we encourage you to read about these laws; and perhaps help our team understand why the teachers' union, the Department of Education and the superintendent's association have continued to ignore these laws. With violence moving from our streets into our schools, students are getting beaten up by classmates as everyday teaching and learning continues, or does not. Teachers continue to intervene with restorative practices to prevent the need for crisis intervention.
We urge you to reach out to local district leaders to prioritize the need to enforce these "Safe Schools Bill of Rights" laws.
Deborah York, Soni Styrlund, Sue Donkersgoed, Simon Whitehead and Stephen Severance are members of the Minnesota Safe Schools Movement Team.