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St. Paul Public Schools settles teacher retaliation lawsuit

Black teacher forced to quit in whistleblower case
Image: Aaron Benner
Aaron Benner, a St. Paul school teacher who volunteers with Project Home, reads "Curious George" to sisters Natalie McKenzie, 4, right, and Xiomara McKenzie the St Paul Cathedral in St. Paul, Minn., on Jan. 21, 2010.Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press via AP file

ST. PAUL, Minn. — St. Paul Public Schools has agreed to pay a black teacher $525,000 to settle a 2017 whistleblower lawsuit that accused the district of retaliating and forcing him to quit because he criticized its racial equity policy.

Aaron Benner was among five teachers who in 2014 criticized Superintendent Valeria Silva's plan to move disruptive African-American children back into mainstream classrooms rather than suspend them.

Talking at a school board meeting, Benner said the policy was "crippling our black children by not holding them to the same expectations as other students."

Benner said disruptive students were subsequently placed in his classroom, he was encouraged to change schools and his teaching assistant was fired and not replaced. The district opened four personnel investigations, one of which accused Benner of taking a sick day without a doctor's note.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ruled in May that the case could go to trial after concluding that a sensible juror might agree that Benner, 50, was forced to quit. The school board approved the $525,000 payout Tuesday before Benner's scheduled trial next month.

Suspensions for district students plummeted drastically after the racial equity policy was adopted but bounced back in subsequent years. The district still reports extensive racial inequalities in discipline and academic achievement and is one of several districts being monitored by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

During negotiations for a new contract in 2015-16, the teachers union united around the message that St. Paul schools were increasingly dangerous places to work and that they weren't getting enough help to manage their classrooms.

Silva left the superintendent post with a buyout in 2016.

Benner, who is now dean of students at a private school in St. Paul, released a statement thanking the former students, parents and co-workers who had been prepared to testify on his behalf.