St. Paul’s Equity Champions White-Splain Some Things to Black Lives Matter

So that didn’t take long.

Members of the St. Paul Public Schools Caucus for Change, the supporters of last year’s teacher-union organized drive to oust and replace four school board members, are using their Facebook page to urge their brethren to disavow Black Lives Matter St. Paul.

The Caucus for Change, you might recall, billed the campaign as a grassroots effort to ensure greater equity in St. Paul schools. The St. Paul Federation of teachers organized the drive, but parents and community members were depicted as the driving forces behind a clarion call for change.

Which might explain why Caucus members are attempting to delegitimize the leader of Black Lives Matter St. Paul, and to “white-splain” away the racially inflammatory Como High teacher rant that started the maelstrom.

“I have been told the BLM St Paul is not a legitimate arm of the national Black Lives Matters Group,” a woman named Cindy Bevier posted to the Caucus thread in question this morning. “It is a rogue group that obviously has unwarranted power over the Saint Paul Public Schools. To be able to get a teacher suspended because of non-racist remarks on FB about the situation at school shows little backbone on the part of the school district. What a travesty.”

We have white people telling black people when they should and should not find white speech offensive, and then running the black folks down when they fail to come to heel. I submit that the charged debate is a real-time illustration of the white privilege the district’s race-equity work is attempting to bring into the light.

Let’s review.

On Wednesday, March 2, Rashad Anthony Turner, the most visible leader of Black Lives Matter St. Paul, posted two screenshots to his Facebook page. Both were posts made to a closed page in which Como special ed teacher Theo Olson ranted about his students.

“Since we now have no backup, no functional location to send kids who won’t quit gaming, setting up fights, selling drugs, whoring trains, or cyber bullying, we’re screwed, just designing our own classroom rules,” said one. “Hopefully tomorrow’s settlement will begin to fix this.”

Two notes of clarification: “Whoring trains” is serial rape. The settlement in question is the new teacher contract the union- and Caucus-backed board negotiated with the union. The settlement gives teachers more influence over how discipline will be handled at individual schools.

The Facebook thread in question and a blog Olson apparently maintained have been taken down, making it impossible to see whether Olson’s claims that the statements read differently in context hold water.

Confrontations ensued, both online and in real life, culminating in a meeting between Turner and Superintendent Valeria Silva and Olson’s placement on paid administrative leave—much of which played out in the headlines.

On Wednesday, following Olson’s suspension, Ms. Bevier started a new thread on the Caucus page:

“Shame on the school administrators. This teacher was not posting racist remarks; he was stating his opinion on the fighting and lack of consistent discipline at Como Park Senior High School. His First Amendment right has been taken away. I am confused about the direction of Black Lives Matter St Paul. Certainly made the Saint Paul Public Schools SPPS run scared.”

“When did BLM Saint Paul become the FB police?” St. Paul teacher Diedra Carlson replied. “How ironic. This issue is not about race, it’s about free speech. I urge every teacher, and educator who supports BLM Saint Paul at SPPS to disavow this group, tighten your FB security and ‘unfriend’ this group.”

“I believe a public statement was made to that effect from BLM Minneapolis, when they disavowed BLM Saint Paul over the summer, who identifies with the national group,” she also posted.

Olson’s supporters have insisted that the remarks had no racial overtones and that his free speech rights are being violated by his suspension. Those offended by the posts questioned whether a man who held his students in such low regard should be teaching.

And not for nothing: In St. Paul two-thirds of students placed in special ed for “emotional-behavioral disorder”—a classification that’s heavily dependent on the perceptions of mostly white teachers of students’ attitudes—are African American. Before the new policies, 10 times as many black St. Paul students as whites were suspended or expelled.

(They are, for the record, still being suspended and expelled in high numbers—just not as high as before.)

It’s not clear which group of special ed students Olson teaches, but the tenor of the Facebook posts—and those of colleagues who have rushed to his defense—certainly raise questions about what it’s like to be a black male in a classroom to which you’ve been exiled because of white cultural blinders.

There’s a huge body of research about the pernicious effects of “stereotype threat.” How many years has a child’s anger at being singled out as a likely problem had to compound by the time they end up in a segregated setting in high school?

And yes, discipline issues in a school are a huge problem. Which is one reason why organizing around them is so effective.

Any policy notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem likely that St. Paul’s discipline issues are going to be resolved until the adults who hold the power in schools are willing to reflect on their privilege and the way in which—even given best intentions—it shapes classroom cultures.

The rush to discredit Turner as somehow not a “real” Black Lives Matter leader is just one more display of this mindset. Because hey—we marched, we took food to the Fourth Precinct, we know DeRay McKesson wears a blue vest—so if ours is the privilege being called out there must be something wrong with the messenger.

Indeed it’s not clear how one becomes a “rogue” Black Lives Matter leader, vs. a legitimate one. It’s a movement, not an incorporated organization with chapters and affiliates and bylaws.

And in any case, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis has not disavowed Turner. Far from it. The movement’s most prominent leader, Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds, encouraged him.

“I think that the way that he operates is actually prophetic,” she told MPR last fall. “That he looks for that sacred ground and sacred territory, and those unique places that you don’t think that the movement would even be present. He goes there and says, ‘Yes, there is room here to have this discussion,’ and I think that’s what’s so jarring to people.”

Which hits the nail squarely on the head. Is there room for this discussion? Is a group that proclaimed itself the community’s real equity champion prepared to listen to the Black lives it professed to be committed to bettering?


11 thoughts on “St. Paul’s Equity Champions White-Splain Some Things to Black Lives Matter

  1. Dan Liljedahl

    Beth you got a few key bits wrong here. First, whoreing trains is, according to the urban dictionary and yahoo answers, (maybe not the most reliable sources but the only ones I could find that referenced it all) a weird sort of game, with origins in myspace, that involve getting as many friends as possible. It’s a social media thing and I think it is from Theo’s past life as a young man using myspace that he even knows this term. I don’t know if this activity is a ‘game’ now. It is not serial prostitution. Second the contract doesn’t give teachers influence over discipline in individual schools, that would be both inconsistent and irresponsible. Third, identlfying children as needing special education services is about data and documented interventions, not the students attitude. There are a number of other opinions that I disagree with, but I find the above items simply false.

    1. Beth Hawkins Post author


      I can refute all of this with actual data. From credible official sources. But a) your discussion of Theo Olson’s youthful time on MySpace and the fact that the MySpace defense makes me think you are a friend of his, which makes me reluctant to take the time because I am guessing no mountain of facts will change your opinion. And b) this MySpace business astonishes me. Why is using a phrase that describes female students as whores because of their internet habits more defensible than a phrase that describes gang rape? I’m not asking you to answer that, by the way.

      1. Harun

        So, where’s that actual data from credible sources on whoring trains?

        Because I really want to know what that meant!

      2. Beth Hawkins Post author

        Harun–Some ink has been spilled on this topic by Theo Olson supporters who insist that the term describes girls who “whore” for the largest number of friends on social media sites. My .02: That definition is not in any way more defensible than the definition I was given when I was reporting the original post. Indeed, I am incredulous at the notion that a teacher would refer to his female students that way, popular slang or not.

  2. Lydia Howell

    I’ve supported Black Lives Matter, as a long time activist & journalist, who’s worked on issues of police accountability since 1978 (in Texas & Minnesota). I do not know Special Ed teacher Theo Olson but, I read his FB on BLM page. He did NOT mention race at all–but, rather BEHAVIOR. There have been several SERIOUS ASSAULTS on teachers by STUDENTS in recent months (and no doubt some on STUDENTS by other students, as well). Is it EVER acceptable to raise the issue of not only disruptive behaviors but VIOLENCE by students? My understanding is that BLM activist Rashad Turner has 2 or 3 years experience as a classroom teacher. He has yet to offer any CONCRETE suggestions as to HOW to address disruptions that undermine ALL students’ education (both the disruptive students & those who are not being disruptive) OR to even acknowledge violence BY students—much less say what he thinks the response to it should be. To say “it’s racism” to recognize these challenges makes a mockery of that very real reality. And it does NOT help ANY students to be in a school where they can’t feel safe due to chaos and that violence could break out at any time. Hawkins is right that St. Paul teachers should listen to concerns expressed by community members–including BLM. But, Rashad Turner and BLM should also listen to teachers. This recent “outrage” raised against Theo Olson looks like OPPORTUNISM possibly fueled by Mr, Turner’s political ambitions and with very little merit. If that’s NOT the case, Turner should make some CONCRETE proposals to Aactually ADDRESS the very REAL concerns that Mr.l Olson wrote about on FB.

    1. Beth Hawkins Post author

      No one is condoning violence in classrooms or any other setting. But it’s time to acknowledge that teachers’ belief sets have a very real–and potentially very negative–impact on a school’s culture.

      1. Susan

        Lately, BLM seems to excusing bad behavior on kids’ (and other “victims” parts) while focusing ONLY on white privilege “wrong doing.” Threatening to close down a school because of one teacher expresses frustration, lack of support, and use of “slang” in a fictional story, is way over the top. The teacher probably had no real clue as to the precise meaning. I didn’t. Meanwhile spewing hatred, violence, suggestions of rape in the form of “music” is considered creative license. I am appalled at the lack of respect we are teaching our kids…. especially toward teachers or any person in a position of authority (of any color). Sadly, that’s really hurting children of color.

    2. Jason

      I see a lot of comments about “he didn’t mention race.” Since when does mentioning race have to be a requirement for institutionalized racism and inherent bias? Even if you take race, and more apparent now misogyny, out of the argument; he is still talking about his students. Since when is it OK to degrade students publicly?

      If this was a black teacher talking about white students, there’d be very different arguments from the same community who is backing Theo Olson.

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