Charges: St. Paul student assaults teacher, causes traumatic brain injury

A St. Paul, Minn. high school teacher is recovering from a traumatic brain injury after he was assaulted by a student while attempting to break up a fight in the school’s cafeteria on Dec. 4.

Two Central Senior High School students were fighting over who had better football statistics in the school’s cafeteria. Witnesses told police the victim was one of several staff members attempting to break up the two students. He was trying to keep 16-year-old Fon’Tae O’Bannon from joining the fight when O’Bannon attacked him, according to the criminal complaint. 

Witnesses said O’Bannon slammed the teacher into a concrete wall. He then picked him up and began to strangle him, at which point the teacher blacked out for 10 to 20 seconds, according to police. Other school staff members eventually gained control of O’Bannon and ended the assault.

When police found the teacher, he had bruising and scratches on his neck and was holding a pair of broken glasses. He was taken to the hospital, where doctors determined he had suffered a traumatic brain injury, neck trauma and a concussion.

O’Bannon faces felony and misdemeanor assault charges, as well as one count of obstructing the legal process.

In response to the incident, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers said in a statement they have filed a petition for state mediation in St. Paul schools, saying it is a required step towards a possible teachers' strike. 

Full statement from SPFT President Denise Rodriguez

This year has been marked by too many instances of assaults on students, teachers and other staff members in the halls and classrooms of our schools. Our students experience many challenges in the world outside of our schools – poverty, structural racism, lack of access to mental health care, and the experience of trauma; we have to make sure that students do not experience added trauma inside their schools. We will not wait any longer for action by our district’s administrators.

Last week a teacher was seriously injured by a student at Central High School while he was trying to break up a fight. Starting this weekend and over the last few days, I have had ongoing conversations with the teacher to find out how he is doing, to hear about the assault directly from him, and to offer any supports he may need. I reminded him that teachers contractually have 5 days to recover—physically and emotionally—when assaulted by a student and that those days do not come out of sick time. His response was similar to what I’ve heard from other teachers who have been assaulted at work: rather than thinking of taking care of himself, he was worried about being away from his classroom too long and about the instruction his students will miss.

The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers is fighting for changes teachers and parents have said, time and time again, are necessary to make our schools safe for students and staff and to end the racial predictability of disciplinary outcomes:

• The necessary additional staff, time, and resources to allow schools to meet these needs and adopt a restorative approach to school climate
• Adding social workers, counselors, nurses, and school psychologists
• Proper staffing and common preparation time for our special education and ELL staff so that they have the time and means to make inclusion work
• Meaningful district support, in the form of time and funding, for parent engagement so that classroom teachers can expand their work with parents and build the collaborative relationships necessary for strong school climates
• Smaller class sizes so that strong relationships can be built with students

We believe that parents and teachers need a say in decisions about school climate. We believe that racial disparities in discipline will not decrease in our buildings without parents and teachers sitting down together to share perspectives and develop solutions. Through our School Climate Improvement Teams (SCITs) the two groups of people who know our students best —parents and teachers—have the opportunity to create school climate policy. We have proposed that the district provide these committees with funds that they can spend on needs they see in their individual school buildings. We have also proposed that students, where appropriate, be allowed to participate directly in these conversations.

Instead of empowering teachers and parents and acting now, leadership at the Saint Paul Public Schools has decided to create a committee and a new department to study the problem of school safety – The Department of School Climate and Support. Instead of moving supports into buildings, another layer of bureaucracy is going to study the problem.

Seven months ago, when our union’s teacher bargaining team made its proposals on restorative practice, parent engagement, support for school SCIT teams, and adequate staffing, we hoped district leaders would recognize the urgency of the crisis facing our students and educators. In November, after the voters of St. Paul delivered their own message about the need for change, we hoped district leaders would be moved to act. To date, the district’s proposal to form a committee and study restorative practices is the only response we have received to these proposals.

Tonight, our union has filed a petition for state mediation. This step is required by state law to trigger our teachers’ right to strike. Teachers don’t want to walk away from their classrooms or their students but if our school climates are not safe and equitable environments for learning, that is a step our members may need to take. We can wait no longer.