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St. Paul grapples with discipline policies after fights, gun brought to school

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Central High School Principal Mary Mackbee
Central High School Principal Mary Mackbee talked about school safety issues at the St. Paul Public Schools administration building Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. Behind her, from left, is Superintendent Valeria Silva, Harding High School Principal Doug Revsbeck and Como Park Senior High School Principal Theresa Neal.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Gretchen Tieder has just returned to Minnesota after living abroad for three years. She's trying to choose a middle school for her two children, and says she's unnerved over recent fights at St. Paul public schools — and a loaded gun found in a student's backpack at Harding High School this week.

  "My children, who see the headlines as well, are concerned as they think about where they're going to go to high school next year," she said.

A juvenile petition brought against a 16-year-old in Ramsey County Thursday says he brought a loaded .22-caliber handgun to Harding, wrapped in a white T-shirt and stuffed in his backpack. He told police he brought it to protect himself from gang members.

"Teachers are talking about it," said Harding social studies teacher Koua Yang. "It's disturbing because it's a place where we are working, it's a place we all care about and it involves kids."

  It's not just the gun at Harding that has teachers and parents concerned. In the last few days there were six fights at Como High School, and a student was Tasered at St. Paul Central High School.

Over the last four years the district has tried to curtail suspensions to reduce racial disparities in discipline. It's also aiming to keep students in schools, rather than send them home for disciplinary issues. District policy calls for suspensions when students bring weapons, and dismissal or suspension if they fight.

  "There's no consequences," he said. "We are teaching our kids it's OK to be rude to adults, to students. It's OK to disrupt the learning environment and all they'll get is a slap on the hand."

  Yang says he understands that keeping students in school is a good thing, but he feels more kids should go through a program that could help them resolve disputes peacefully.

District spokesperson Ryan Vernosh says officials will examine disciplinary and security procedures.

  "Anytime an incident of the magnitude that happened at Harding and the fights this week and past at Como warrant further conversation both on the school level and the district level," he said.

At Como, the district will survey staff on what additional support is needed in the school. He says the district will also listen to staff throughout St. Paul schools.

  "We need to have those conversations with our staff to look at what kind of learning and supports are in place and what we need to adjust and modify those to make sure the needs of our students are met," he said.

  Scrutiny of the disciplinary procedures comes as four seats on the St. Paul school board are up for election early next month.

A caucus backed by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, the union for the district, has endorsed a slate of all-new candidates. The union's endorsement was made, in part, to protest the district's disciplinary policies.

  Superintendent Valeria Silva will talk with union officials Friday in a previously scheduled meeting. The union president says school violence is at the top of the agenda.