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St. Paul teachers threaten to strike in the wake of school violence

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Leaders of the St. Paul teachers union said Tuesday night they are taking steps toward calling a strike because of the recent increase in violence at city schools, and what they perceive as a lack of action on the part of Superintendent Valeria Silva to address it.

The most recent and most serious incident occurred last week when two students at St. Paul Central High School assaulted a teacher who was trying to break up a fight in the lunch room.

One of them also assaulted an assistant principal who came to the aid of the teacher, who was injured seriously enough to be hospitalized.

The two students – who are brothers age 16 and 15 – were charged Tuesday with assault; the one who attacked the teacher faces a felony count.

"We will not wait any longer for action by our district’s administrators," St. Paul Federation of Teachers president Denise Rodriguez said in a statement Tuesday night. She said the union has filed a petition for state mediation, which is a step required by state law to trigger the union's right to strike.

"Teachers don’t want to walk away from their classrooms or their students," Rodriguez said. "But if our school climates are not safe and equitable environments for learning, that is a step our members may need to take."

What teachers are asking for

In their current contract negotiations, the union has asked administration to take a number of steps, such as providing more resources and more staff, including social workers, counselors, nurses and school psychologists, to address the needs of students who come from challenging circumstances.

The union also wants a greater emphasis on parent involvement through School Climate Improvement Teams, made up of parents and teachers at each school. 

"We believe that parents and teachers need a say in decisions about school climate. We believe that racial disparities in discipline will not decrease in our buildings without parents and teachers sitting down together to share perspectives and develop solutions," Rodriguez said. 

So far the administration has rejected those requests, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Rodriguez is critical of Silva's plans to create a new Department of School Climate and Support to study the problem of school safety, which she claims will add another layer of bureaucracy instead of action at the building level. 

A spokeswoman for the district told KSTP administrators were notified of the statement shortly after it was released, and were not ready to respond.

A number of violent incidents have taken place in St. Paul schools this year, which has district leaders and staff concerned.

A student at Harding High School was arrested in late October for having a loaded gun in his backpack at school. During that same week, more than half a dozen fights broke out in several schools, including some brawls that involved dozens of students.

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