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Minnesota's new ed chief doesn't want to arm teachers

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Newly appointed Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker
Incoming Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker poses for a portrait at the Kling Public Media Center on Jan. 4, 2019.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

Minnesota's newly-appointed education commissioner, Mary Cathryn Ricker, said on Friday that she disagrees with the Trump administration's recommendations to arm teachers.

The Trump administration last month released 93 guidelines for school safety that include things like training and arming school personnel.

But Ricker, a former teacher, came out against that advice.

"Arming teachers distracts us from the kinds of conversations we could be having about a more community-based and more welcoming teaching and learning situation," Ricker said. "Introducing weapons into a classroom environment is not going to create a more welcoming school environment for practitioners or for our students."

The Trump administration's commission on school safety also recommended rolling back Obama-era guidelines on reducing racial discrimination in school discipline.

But Ricker said fighting disparities doesn't make schools more dangerous.

"I absolutely think conflating the sort of tragedies of school safety with rolling back discipline guidelines can be really dangerous for us because conflating those two things, it's not helping to move a conversation. It's not helping to make our students safer," Ricker said. 

She added: "Those discipline guidelines were put in place to help right a wrong — and that [wrong] is that we have really predictable discipline disparities in many places right now. And we want people to have attention to those things because we want those to go away. And so conflating the two really just — it sets us back."

A 2018 report from the non-partisan federal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, found that students with disabilities, black students and male students are disproportionately disciplined in K-12 schools. And black students, who account for 15.5 percent of all public school students, make up about 39 percent of all students suspended.

The Obama administration saw discipline disparities as a civil rights violation and advised schools they were subject to investigation if there were reports of discipline disparities based on race.

But the new guidelines issued by the Department of Education, headed by Trump-appointee Betsy Devos, assert the Obama-era guidelines on discipline disparities "likely had a strong negative impact on school discipline and safety."

New research from the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corporation, however, finds that teachers and others in the education community see restorative justice as a way to improve school safety.

Mary Cathryn Ricker is a third-generation teacher who started her career as an educator at a middle school in St. Cloud. She is currently executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Like several education commissioners ahead of her, Ricker said she wants to work on Minnesota's persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color.

"One of the ways we begin to tackle [the achievement gap] is by having these conversations exactly in the community and building that consensus, recognizing that families care desperately about the achievement of their children and have real ideas for what their students deserve," Ricker said.

Ricker takes office on Jan. 7.