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Latest student violence leaves teacher injured, St. Paul leaders vexed

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Silva, Choi discuss school violence across county
St. Paul Public Schools superintendent Valeria Silva listens while Ramsey County Attorney John Choi talks about a spike in school violence, particularly against staff, across the county.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Updated: 5:44 p.m. | Published: 6:45 a.m.

Stunned by news of another assault in St. Paul Public Schools, officials Tuesday vowed to act but conceded that there isn't much they can do on their own to stop violent student behavior.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and St. Paul Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva unveiled plans for a task force to find solutions to the trend of violence that's spilled across the city's high schools.

Choi called it a "public health crisis" that requires "public intervention" and said it wasn't just an urban problem.

His remarks came hours after his office charged a 16-year-old St. Paul Central High School student with a felony in connection with a brutal assault on a teacher last week that led to a traumatic brain injury and other injuries, according to a criminal complaint filed.

The student faces three charges in connection with the Friday assault on science teacher John Ekblad, identified only as "JE" in the criminal complaint. The student faces 3rd- and 4th-degree assault charges and an obstruction of legal process charge. 

MPR News generally does not name minors unless they've been certified to be charged as adults. 

Ekblad told investigators that he tried to stop the student from joining a fight that was going on in the cafeteria, according to the complaint. Witnesses, including an assistant principal, said that the student swore at Ekblad, and threatened to knock him out. 

Witnesses told investigators that the student lifted Ekblad by the neck, then slammed him onto a chair and then the floor. They told police the student got on top of Ekblad, choking and punching him. 

The teacher told police he didn't remember anything until the student stopped choking him. Police estimate that Ekblad was unconscious for 10 to 20 seconds. 

Investigators said the student also pushed an assistant principal into a wall, then charged at a school resource officer. When he was told he was under arrest, the student laughed, according to the charges. 

After the assault, Ekblad reported nausea, a tingling in his hands and back and neck pain. Doctors told investigators that teacher had a traumatic brain injury, a concussion and "neck trauma." He was admitted to the hospital.  

It was the latest in a series of assaults and disruptions at St. Paul schools reported this year, including a reported assault on a police officer at Harding High School and an injury to a staff member there earlier this fall. More than a dozen students were cited after a melee at Humboldt High School in October, where yet another staff member was reportedly assaulted.

The violence became part of this fall's election campaign, as one of the issues cited by a slate of candidates that successfully challenged school board incumbents up for election this year.

The Central assault was the 27th such case in Ramsey County so far this year, according to the Ramsey County Attorney's office. That's a 60 percent increase from the prior five-year average, Choi said Tuesday.

About half were in St. Paul while the rest were in suburban Ramsey County schools, he added.

Silva said St. Paul doesn't tolerate violence against anyone in the schools and said the district does suspend suspend students who assault others.

Asked about the jump in incidents, Silva said most this year involve students "who do not have a background of violence in our schools, nor needed special services."

The Central incident, she said, involved two students who were new to the school this year.

Choi said the schools and community must also come to terms with the "immense trauma" some kids face daily and can bring to school. "I think there's a lot of issues under the surface," he said.

"I wish I could tell you what is wrong," said Silva. "If I knew ... I would have solved it."