Three days after one student killed another with a knife in the halls of Harding High School, the school staff gathered for a meeting with Superintendent Joe Gothard.
When someone asked, “Who here was not surprised that this happened?” virtually every hand went up, according to three teachers who attended the meeting.
“This wasn’t a one-time thing. It was inevitable,” one teacher told the Pioneer Press on the condition of anonymity.
“It just felt like it was a matter of time,” said another teacher.
The superintendent heard the same message during a meeting with hundreds of Harding parents six days after Devin Scott’s death.
A mother of two students said her daughter emailed Principal Be Vang in December after another violent incident at the school. The girl warned that if something isn’t done to improve safety and security at the school, someone was going to die.
“We all saw it coming,” her mother said.
Since Scott’s death, school district leaders have announced a long list of safety initiatives, from posting police officers outside the school and adding a third security guard to inviting parents to volunteer in the hallways and offering to pay people to sit outside school restrooms.
That’s led many teachers, parents and students to ask variations of the same question. As one woman at the parent meeting put it: “Why does it take someone getting murdered before you have bathroom monitors?”
The Pioneer Press granted anonymity to five Harding teachers who wanted to talk about school safety but say they feared reprisal from a district with a history of retaliation.
In separate interviews, each teacher said the school has grown increasingly dangerous in recent years. Between 40 and 70 students routinely roam the hallways instead of going to class, they said, and harassment and drug use in bathrooms is common enough that many students either hold their bladders or go to the nurse’s office.
Teachers, students and parents complain to administrators, but efforts to clean things up, such as requiring ID badges and bathroom passes, are quickly abandoned or inconsistently enforced.
“The issue at Harding has been an absolute profound lack of leadership, a distrust between the administration and teachers, no support,” one teacher said. “We’ve been saying this for years: Somebody’s going to get hurt because there’s no control in the hallways.”
Asked what Harding had done before the stabbing to address safety concerns, district officials pointed to the addition of school and community support liaisons, the district employees who have taken the place of contract security guards and school resource officers and who are expected to build relationships with students.
Officials also said staff and administrators have received new two-way radios and extensive safety training. And the district last fall brought in a community mentor to help Harding students de-escalate conflicts plus a full-time therapist for mental health support.
“SPPS strives to create welcoming school environments where each and every student is seen, known and valued. We continually work to build positive school cultures and to hold students accountable for inappropriate behavior,” the district said.
Teachers and parents say the scene that played out at the school on Feb. 10 was all too familiar. Well after the bell rang to start third period, several students were in the hallway where three students were fighting and a fourth ran in just as they were separated by an assistant principal and another employee.
In cellphone video shared on social media, Scott and two others can be seen running away as Nosakhere Holmes, 16, walks after them. An adult voice calls out repeatedly, “Nos has got a knife.”
According to a juvenile petition charging Holmes with second-degree murder, school surveillance videos showed him stabbing Scott in the chest and stomach with a folding knife before two school security guards arrived to place him in handcuffs.
“The events at Harding High School did not occur in a vacuum, and they cannot be addressed in one,” the St. Paul Federation of Educators said in a petition calling for an emergency school board meeting on school safety, which the board later scheduled for this Tuesday. “These events are the tragically avoidable and inevitable result of inadequate SPPS school climate policies and the refusal to listen to staff and community on how to address problems before they escalate.”
‘I didn’t feel safe’
Last April, after an unknown student tried to rob another student with a BB gun in a Harding bathroom, third-year science teacher Andrew Banker took a day off work and created a school safety survey for his students.
Two weeks later, he heard a commotion in the hallway and left his class to see an administrator struggling with a student who was carrying a loaded handgun. Banker said he used the administrator’s radio to call for backup after it fell to the floor.
Following an emotional staff meeting with the superintendent later that day, Banker distributed results from the student survey to fellow teachers and invited them to brainstorm ideas for improving safety at Harding.
But soon after the Google Docs file he shared made its way to Principal Vang, Banker got an email from the district’s human resources office informing him he was under investigation. He was told “not to email ANYONE for any other reason (than) for professional work responsibilities.”
Ultimately, Banker said he was admonished for surveying students, for speaking during a student walkout and for violating procedures around advocating for change in the building. The district did not suspend him, but the investigation effectively silenced him as an advocate for safety improvements.
Banker quit after the school year and is now a stay-at-home dad working on his master’s degree.
“I didn’t feel safe staying at Harding,” he said. “It’s one thing to feel safe and be able to change something. It’s another to feel unsafe and have the whole system shut you down.”
Banker said Scott’s killing earlier this month left him wondering, “Did I not do enough, and did they not do enough?”
Coming out of lockdown measures during the coronavirus pandemic and racial unrest following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers, much of the country has been grappling with growing violence, both in and out of schools.
Students increasingly feel unsafe, according to the triennial Minnesota Student Survey. Between 2019 and 2022, the share of Minnesota high school juniors surveyed who said they “strongly agree” they feel safe at school dropped from 41 percent to 26 percent. There were similar declines in their feelings of safety at home and in their neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, St. Paul attendance data points to schools’ failure to reengage students since buildings reopened in early 2021. Last year in the district, the average day saw 12 percent of students absent from school, double the rate from before the pandemic.
“We are failing them miserably,” one teacher said of disengaged students at Harding, “and they are destroying the education for every kid there.”
Another teacher told the Pioneer Press there are students on his roster who come to school regularly but never got to class.
“They’re there every day. I see them in the halls,” he said. “They’re usually the ones instigating or causing trouble.”
Among other hallway problems, teachers say it’s common for students to open exterior doors to let in other people, who may or may not be Harding students.
At the recent parent meeting, district administrators said they’ve ordered door alarms to address that concern, but noted that it will create an inconvenience for others trying to get in and out of the building.
The district said Friday that “staff will continue to provide additional hallway supervision and bathroom escorts, mental health and other supports next week as we work toward sustainable long-term systems for the students and staff at Harding.”
How it got this way
As to how things have gotten so bad, the teachers suggested numerous factors:
• Their development stunted by the coronavirus pandemic and school closures, students lack the skills to resolve problems;
• A bus driver shortage has cost Harding and some other high schools their yellow bus service, and students are carrying weapons to protect themselves while using Metro Transit;
• Students are using cellphones in and out of school to taunt each other, fanning conflict;
• Principal Vang, who was hired in 2019, had no prior experience working in a high school, and teachers say she hasn’t supported them in holding students accountable for their behavior.
St. Paul, like many districts across the state and country, has worked to reduce out-of-school suspensions and criminal arrests, especially for students of color.
Students now are going unpunished for smoking marijuana and swearing at teachers, which used to result in two-week suspensions, one teacher said.
Another teacher recalled a new student who showed up “so high he couldn’t keep his eyes open,” then walked out five minutes later.
“There was a day when I would follow up: What’s going on? Let’s do a drug eval,” the teacher said. “I can’t because I’m trying to keep control of my room.”
It used to be that teachers would teach and administrators would handle student discipline. Now, the teacher said, students who are sent to the office for disrupting class often return within minutes.
“There’s no backup from admin because that’s how they’re being trained,” another teacher said.
Even before the St. Paul school board removed school resource officers from the high schools in 2020, the district instructed its contracted officers to overlook minor crimes in hopes of interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. The officers made 342 arrests in St. Paul schools in 2010-11 but a total of just 39 over the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years.
The teacher said the attention on racial equity has been good in some ways, as teachers have learned to handle classroom misbehavior on their own rather than calling administrators to remove students for minor infractions.
“There is some good in that,” she said. “But there comes a point where it’s so much to the detriment of the other 32 kids in the room.”
Where can they go?
St. Paul’s equity efforts included closing alternative schools and programs that used to take students with behavior concerns. Now, those students are “mainstreamed” at comprehensive schools like Harding.
Three of the teachers who spoke with the Pioneer Press said that shift, along with the failure to give those students the necessary supports, has a lot to do with the unruly culture at some district high schools.
“The bottom line is the refusal to remove dangerous kids or kids who are there to disrupt,” one teacher said.
Because those alternative programs overwhelmingly enrolled Black students, he and other teachers said with regret that it’s unlikely St. Paul would ever go back to such an approach.
“Somebody has to have the political will to say, ‘We love you, we’ll help you, but not here — not at the safety and well-being of all the people who are in that building,’” one teacher said. “I have zero faith that they’ll do it.”
The St. Paul district reported taking seven guns away from students last school year and two more this year, including one at Harding in January.
A state law calls for students to be expelled for at least a year for bringing a gun to school, unless the districts decides some other punishment is more appropriate. St. Paul hasn’t expelled any student in years.
The district says those students typically go to the district’s Alternative to Expulsion Program, where they get small group instruction in core subjects for up to 45 school days before returning to a comprehensive high school.
Another common strategy is transferring students to another high school within the district.
The day Scott died was his first at Harding after such a transfer, and the third student in the fight had been there only a week, according to a juvenile court document charging Holmes with second-degree murder.
A teacher said a colleague likened those transfers to the way the Catholic church used to handle abusive priests.
“They just move from building to building, and they try to keep it quiet,” he said, with teachers getting no information about their new students.
The district said administrators talk with the receiving school’s principal about a “support plan” for the students, and there’s a meeting with students and their parents about safety and expectations.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Gothard said the district is looking into how it can better support students who need it without disrupting the learning environment.
“We know that there are students that need things and supports that perhaps have gone unaddressed,” he said.
One of the teachers who was at an April meeting after Harding’s third gun incident that school year recalled administrators blaming teachers for the state of the school. At the recent staff meeting after Scott’s death, the superintendent and his team struck a different tone.
“I think he’s finally got the message,” the teacher said. “Too little, too late.”