—– By: Ann Costantino —–
St. Paul, Minnesota teacher, Aaron Benner, will not sit down. For years, the 23-year veteran teacher – turned Dean of Students – stood up for what he saw as a flawed school discipline policy which deteriorated his classroom before his eyes.
Unsupported by his school system’s education board, Benner took his concerns to anyone who would listen. But when he turned to his teachers union, Benner said the 15 years of union dues bought him silence.
So, when he saw the opportunity to speak up this past Monday, Benner took to Supreme Court steps to continue his stand.
“I stand before you today, not as a Democrat or as a Republican. I stand before you today as an American citizen. An American citizen who was taught to work hard and always have faith that your union would support you in the workforce. My testimony today has nothing to do with the elimination of unions,” he said.
On Monday, Benner came to Washington D.C. in support of Janus v. AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), a Supreme Court case which is challenging a 1977 ruling – Abood v. Detroit Board of Education – that forced teachers in 22 states to pay union dues in spite of membership.
It was through his ordeal at St. Paul Public Schools, Benner came to believe that teachers should have the freedom to choose whether or not to pay the dues.
During his speech on Monday, Benner spoke about the dues he felt he paid in vain. Because when he needed his union’s support the most, Benner said he was not only left without it, but says he was specifically opposed.
“After paying dues for 15 years to the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, 15 years’ worth of union dues, this was the representation I received. SILENCE! SILENCE!” he said in his speech.
“The silence from my union was deafening. Not only did my union not fight for me, they purposely remained silent throughout my ordeal,” he said.
But, Benner said, when the union did finally act, it wasn’t in support of him. “The union president informed me that she was forced to write a statement against me after an appearance I had on national television. This revelation broke my heart,” he said.
From 2011 to 2015, Benner spoke out about the correlation he saw between the district’s new discipline policy and student behavior at St. Paul Public Schools.
After a change to the school district’s discipline policy, which focused on reducing consequences for students, the veteran teacher told the Baltimore Post that teachers at St. Paul schools were no longer teaching, but were just trying to maintain safe classrooms. “We were not worried about math and reading. We were protecting our classes. I was busy protecting my class,” he said.
Benner told The Baltimore Post in a previous interview that the new discipline policy in his former school district was harming students and staff.
He said that after he had been punched by a student, and the student returned to class without consequence, he was perplexed to find a lack of support from his school’s administration.
After striking out with the administration, Benner then started speaking at school board meetings. But when he addressed his school board about what he was witnessing in his school, Benner says he was accused of numerous infractions after a 23-year career without a single citation. “These frivolous infractions were clearly out of the ordinary and were the result of me speaking at the school board meeting,” he said.
Benner later went public, appearing in television and radio interviews, speaking about the increased and alarming behavioral issues within his school, while specifically criticizing the consultant group his school system hired to help implement the policy change. Pacific Educational Group – or PEG – he said, had a detrimental impact on St. Paul Public Schools.
Although PEG no longer publishes its list of clients, previous reports show that several dozen school systems have hired PEG as a consultant to implement policy changes. Among them, California’s Berkley Unified School District, North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenberg, and Baltimore County Public Schools, which also contracted with PEG to direct its equity and discipline policies.
PEG’s influence on these discipline policies, Benner said, is destructive. Between 2011 and 2015, Benner said he witnessed a fourth grader throw another student against the wall, breaking his nose. He saw elementary school aged boys walking down the halls, grabbing girls’ breasts.
Also commonplace, Benner said, were instances of fighting leading to injuries drawing blood, and destruction of property in the middle of classes. All of these acts occurred without consequence, Benner said.
“This is criminal behavior,” he told The Baltimore Post.
Benner says that the discipline policy changes are doing kids no favors. “These kids have trauma; trauma starts at home. Kids must be taught simple behavior guidelines,” he said. “Good teachers have routines and rituals set by third week of school. Teachers should set boundaries on ‘Day 1’: ‘We are going to agree to respect each other, be fair…’”
Benner was alarmed to see his students’ behaviors change overnight. The emphasis of the policy change reduced consequences for behaviors which, he said, immediately caused behavioral issues.
He said that students knew right away that their behaviors would not result in disciplinary action and that shift immediately translated into a sudden change in behavior in the classroom.
After being penalized by his school system for speaking out, Benner turned to his union for help. In his speech on Monday, he said, “I had faith in my union, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers.” And “I knew they would fight for me because, after all, that’s what unions do,” he continued. But, “Not in my case. Not in my case,” he said.
“I was misled to believe that my union would do what they were clearly legally obligated to do – represent me.”
Benner, who left St. Paul Public Schools after the ordeal and now serves as Dean of Students at a Catholic school, believes teachers should have a choice and not be forced to pay the dues. “Like I stated earlier, I’m not here for the elimination of unions. No one is taking unions away. This ruling could actually force unions to provide real value for their services…” Benner said. “How could that possibly be a bad thing for workers?”