Mpls school dept. threatens to fire teacher who monitored arrest of an African American man

[Update 2:52 — Minneapolis Public Schools has apologized to the teacher and returned her to duty]

A teacher at Washburn High in Minneapolis was threated with being fired because she stopped to monitor the arrest of an African American man by Minneapolis police and then was arrested for obstructing justice, City Pages reports.

Accounts differ on what led to Crystal Spring’s arrest in May at Franklin and Clinton Avenues. Police say she continually confronted them. She says she parked and moved her car twice at their request and when they asked her what she was doing at the scene, she said he was watching. She ended up in the back of a squad car.

Minneapolis Public Schools last week sent her a letter saying she was marked for termination for conduct unbecoming a teacher.

After word spread online about Spring’s likely firing, the plan to terminate her was reduced to a plan to place her on administrative leave.

Author and teacher Shannon Gibney rallied the Washburn community on Facebook to support Spring.

Thirty-year-old Spring was recognized less than a month ago at the 2016 Minneapolis Celebration of Teachers for her “exceptional work being done with students at Minneapolis Public Schools,” (Achieve Mpls) and was recently featured on Twin Cities Public Television’s (TPT’s) MN Original series for creating the very successful Social Justice Black Box Theatre Program at Washburn High School. She is a protege of St. Paul Central High School Touring Theater Teacher Jan Mandell, and has been teaching for eight years.

The incident that spurred the firing occurred the evening of May 19, 2016. Spring was driving near Franklin and Clinton in Minneapolis at about 10:30 pm, coming home from student performances at TPT. She said, “I hear a man yelling, he’s on the side of the road being arrested. I wasn’t clear what was happening. I didn’t see a lot of people around. So, I stopped and pulled over, sat watching in my car because I was concerned for his safety. One cop asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m watching.’ He told me to move my car, which I did. I pulled into an alley and got out of my car. I stood on the sidewalk, and they were in the street with the man, who was African American.

“The police asked me again what I was doing, and I said that I was watching. They told me again to move my car, and I said, ‘I will.’

Then they put the man in the police car, and drove into the Wendy’s parking lot. And I looked up and saw about five people observing what was happening from the Wendy’s parking lot.

“Then I drove my car to the Wendy’s and parked in a far parking space. I got out with my phone in my hand, and walked over to where the officers were continuing the arrest, and the police asked me again, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said again, ‘I’m watching.’ My phone was taken out of my hand, he started to put hand cuffs on me, and I was told, ‘You’re under arrest. You’re going to jail tonight.’ He looked at my phone. I said, ‘I don’t understand what’s happening right now.’ He said, ‘Oh, you don’t understand? I’ll call my deputy.’ I told him he was hurting me, and he said, ‘I don’t care. Hand cuffs aren’t made to be comfortable.’ I asked if I could get my phone and keys, and he said, ‘I don’t know.’

“I was placed in the squad car with the man in custody. They moved me to two or three different cars. Fifteen minutes later, the deputy came and they took pictures of my hands in hand cuffs. He read me my rights and said that they had witnesses saying that I was running in the streets and yelling, and they had this all on tape. He asked me for my version, and I gave it. I told him I was a teacher and had just finished a 14-hour day. He said, ‘It sounds like you’ve had a long day and made a bad decision. You’re going to jail tonight.’”
Spring’s termination letter was signed by Steven Barrett, Executive Director of HR Operations at MPS, and CC’d to Washburn High School Principal Rhonda Dean, Mike Leiter, MFT; Human Capital; and Employee Relations.

In the letter Barrett writes, “…the District became aware of your arrest on Thursday, May 19, 2016. In that incident, you allegedly approached police officers involved with taking someone into custody. You parked your vehicle near the incident and confronted the officers on several occasions despite being told to step back. You then proceeded to follow the officers across the street and began to confront witnesses who were being interviewed by the officers, telling them not to cooperate with the officers and accusing the officers of being racist. Witnesses at the scene corroborated the officers’ account of your behavior. You were arrested and charged with obstruction of legal process and disorderly conduct.”
“This behavior is especially troublesome on multiple levels,” the letter continues. “You had no connection to the parties involved in the police action. You did not know the circumstances of why the police were taking someone into custody. Yet you determined that repeatedly confronting the police officers, and shouting accusations about the officers to potential witnesses to the police investigation, was necessary.”

Commenting on the letter, Emily Flower, Minneapolis NAACP member and community activist said, “It’s troublesome to me that Mr. Barrett and HR have made comments with no factual basis when there has been no determination or opinions given from the courts. Police accountability is in the best interest of society. Citizens being punished for seeking a higher level of police accountability is abhorrent. It is disappointing that MPS is taking action without any evidence or comprehension of this situation.”

Jordan Kushner, Spring’s lawyer for the criminal charge against her, said, “It is disturbingly unenlightened and uninformed to make such a severe decision based on a police report. You would certainly expect an understanding of due process here. The purpose of the court proceedings is to determine whether or not the allegations in the police report can be proven. The decision to automatically take the word of a police officer over a school teacher makes a disturbing statement that the district doesn’t think their school teachers have any credibility.”
Kushner said that there is also one more important issue that must be addressed: “Even if you were to accept the statements in the police report, Ms. Spring was still exercising her right to free speech. The Supreme Court has a landmark case called City of Houston vs. Hill that struck down an ordinance to make it illegal to verbally interfere with police. It’s well understood that the citizen has an absolute right, that the public can watch and even criticize the actions of police officers. I intend to raise those issues in the court proceedings. It’s disturbing that the district apparently has no concept of the right to free speech.”

Although Spring is ostensibly a theater teacher, the kind of theater she teaches is highly specialized, with an emphasis on social justice and youth expression. “Students develop all original material based on their own life experiences and changes they want to see in their community,” said Spring. “Students learn communication skills, self-advocacy, and critical thinking skills. It’s important for them to learn how to be catalysts for change in their own lives and their communities.” Several of Spring’s students have gone on to professionally pursue careers in social justice arts and education. “This program has reached students with cognitive and physical and emotional learning disabilities, it has reached students from every class background, it’s cross-cultural, reaches those with all kinds of sexual identities, religious backgrounds, etc.,” she added.

Bella Dawson, a 16 year-old junior at Washburn High School, said that the Washburn High School Black Box Theatre program that Spring has created and cultivated is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon at the school. “Honestly, it’s a safe space for students. There’s no space like it, especially for students of color. It’s a family, really. …To end this theater program would be like ending a family. I think with Ms. Spring and the depth that she has, she doesn’t just do the, ‘Hi! Hello, I’m going to talk at you for an hour,’ she actually tries to make a connection with students, which is something that is very rare and authentic to her. Academically, it brings students back to their roots. It gives them a purpose. You’re actually learning about yourself, learning about other people in order to become a better scholar, or a better person. We don’t have another space like it.”

Eliza Rasheed, a theater teacher who runs a similar program at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus in St. Paul Public Schools said, “We are teaching students how to engage multiple perspectives on identity, on the world, through creative and civil discourse. It saves lives. Many kids come to school because they want to do theater.”
Rasheed continued, “What Crystal is doing provides a space where students can speak their truth without being judged. How can we talk to each other without walking out on each other? How do we hold each other up through the difficult and challenging times? How do we practice that? We do it in theater classes. In theater we explicitly name these things and ask students to try and try again, to learn from their mistakes and build resilience. Her curriculum is a blueprint for the racial equity work that MPS is trying to get at. It has the four ‘R’s:’ It is Real, it is Relevant, it fosters Relationships, and it is Rigorous. Students are really engaged in the Black Box Theatre model.”

A teaching staff with a partnering program commented anonymously on the environment for progressive teachers in MPS. “I have been working in partnership with MPS since 2008. I have worn many hats from year to year, but one thing that’s remained consistent at Washburn High School is the pushing out of teaching staff who effectively serve students of color. The inequities are apparent from floor to floor, students and staff are well aware of it, and the efforts to change that have been stalled or stopped continuously. This is another attempt to stop an amazing and brave staff member from doing the hard work that it’s going to take to make change, to move the needle even a little bit on a daily basis. As the school has become whiter, this has become a bigger problem.”
She added, “I’ve sat on the sidelines for my own safety, and in spite of being encouraged to get licensed by staff that I’ve collaborated with who see my strengths and willingness to engage and effectively reach all students. It’s disheartening to watch these patterns unfold, and increases my doubt that this is a system that can be fixed, and that those who are in positions of power in the school level and the district level are even interested in making that change.”

Spring is at a loss for what she will do professionally going forward. “At 19 I discovered that this is my life’s work and my life’s passion. And I have been blessed to be living out the legacy of Jan Mandell’s work in social justice theater and youth voice for the past eight years at Washburn. It breaks my heart that this transformative and life-changing program will be terminated along with me,” she said.

“We can only provide public information about staff. Due to data privacy laws, we cannot speak about private employee data. Crystal Spring is currently employed by MPS and is on administrative leave,” Minneapolis Board of Education spokesman Dirk Tedmon said in a statement this afternoon.

Spring’s supporters plan to ask for an apology from the school board when it meets tomorrow evening.

Related: Youth activism: Washburn High School theater teaches advocacy (TC Daily Planet)

Archive: Minneapolis affirms your right to take a picture of police (NewsCut)

  • Jeff
    • The Theo Olson story got tons of coverage from just ab out everyone in the Twin Cities. It led every TV newscast too, as I recall. There was nothing in your NY Post article that hadn’t been covered in the Twin Cities a month earlier. In fact, in all liklihood, the NYP got its story by cribbing local news coverage.

      • Gary F

        But what’s happening to Theo Olson NOW! Does he have a job and a school assignment for next fall?

        • Jeff

          Odd how people see the words they want to see, I asked for a “follow up” not to reiterate the original story from 3 months ago…it would be interesting to get a follow up now that the school year is over. What happened to him, did he lose his job, did he find a new one, did the administration create this situation?

          • I saw the word “follow up” which is why I pointed our your example of a “followup” wasn’t a followup. It was just a story repeating the same facts as before.

            I do, however, remain unaware of what your point is.

          • Jeff

            Could you please do a story on where Theo Olson is now? Talk to him, ask him what he thinks about everything now that the school year is over. Could you see if the administration ever let him back into his classroom? See if he found a job at another school…basically I’m asking you to do a follow up story on Theo Olson…not sure if that’s a point or request…but that’s my “point”.

          • Dan

            “The reasons behind disciplinary moves are not public until they are final, under the state’s data practices act, and Olson did not offer any details of his own in the three-paragraph statement.”

            I think this is pretty up to date (June 9). Are you under the impression that Olson wants to say more than this statement, but the media just won’t listen to him? Or, are you looking for them to report from the future?

          • Jeff

            I’m just preemptively requesting a report from MPR when the facts can be known and Olson is free to speak about the decision.

          • Which facts are you looking for?

          • Jeff

            How does Olson feel about his treatment over this period of time? What is the specific punishment that was handed to Olson, which rules did he specifically violate? Finally, what do those students in his class and what does the community think about the treatment of Mr. Olson…once the administrators are allowed to speak on the topic it would be good to get their input for their justification of their treatment of Olson.

        • The follow-up:

          http://www.startribune.com/embattled-st-paul-teacher-closes-out-year-as-district-substitute/382408721/

          It took me all of 30 seconds to find this information.

    • StevenAppelget

      Pretty classic “what-about-ism” right there.

      • Jeff

        I was just curious, it’s a somewhat similar story where a teacher did something that angered the administration and was fired or asked to leave. I wanted MPR to do a follow up and find out what really happened to Theo Olson after the administration suspended him 3 months ago…perhaps a similar fate lies ahead for Crystal Spring.

          • Jeff

            Yes I found that story too…it’s literally in my original comment (did you copy and paste the link from my comment from yesterday?)…I found the story lacking and I would like MPR to have a more in depth story with him, perhaps once the disciplinary action is final (or leaked).

          • Ah, very good. I didn’t copypasta your link from yesterday.

            So far as a followup, school districts aren’t the most transparent of organizations and many of the things that go on on the administration side of things would absolutely shock most sane people. Also, they love gag orders…

            /Was in the administration building of a large local school district for about 8 years…

    • Jim in RF

      Everyone’s scared of stepping on Sooch’s territory.

  • Gary F

    Does it seem like City Pages is actually doing the investigative journalism these days and the rest of the media just reports what the media spokesman for the school district gives in a press conference or media release?

    • Veronica

      City Pages? Do you mean before or after the Strib bought them?

      • Gary F

        I didn’t know Taylor owned them now. For the most part, CP has always done investigative journalism, though usually with a left bias. But they aren’t afraid of taking on the big government or big education establishments when there is a good story. Unlike the news stations, the two papers in town, and MPR, who now don’t want to ruffle feathers in big government or big education. They just show up to a press conference, ask some questions and report on it. Consultants meet all the time to wonder why people aren’t watching the news, buying papers, and younger folks becoming members, when they should realize its not good product. Good job City Pages.

    • Mesabi academy?

      Also, read Mukhtar Ibrahim’s piece.

      • Jeff

        Yes, that was good work from MPR. We appreciate that sort of reporting, I wonder if MPR could get into a St. Paul classroom and report what they see. My wife was in a St. Paul classroom 3 weeks ago (shadowing for a potential job) and what she saw was eye opening, students on electronic devices even after the teacher told the student to put it down…the teachers have no authority now. My wife was told not to dress up because the students might take offense so only jeans and t-shirts…even the teachers know about how the parents of these students are abusing their kids (one parent was making his 2 sons fight one another, daily) but they are not allowed to do anything about it. At least Mesabi academy is now shutdown, that was a good moment for MPR to create a change in our world…I hope that good work continues.

        • >>…abusing their kids (one parent was making his 2 sons fight one another, daily) but they are not allowed to do anything about it.<<

          Call Social Services?

          A teacher is classified as a mandatory reporter of child abuse.

          https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/manda.pdf

          • Jeff

            Since the teacher knew about it I would assume that it has been reported and social services did nothing about it.

          • Kassie

            If you can’t blame the schools, blame social services. It couldn’t be that your wife didn’t find out the whole story during her brief visit or misunderstood? Nope, obviously some government agency at fault.

          • Jeff

            Well the comment was made to make my wife wary about that student…the kid could explode and get violent on a dime. These students were the EBD students and obviously had some problems in their life up to that point. I honestly don’t think she misunderstood it, I think it was very clear what the other teachers were telling her about the students.

  • radicalhw

    My son took Theatre 1 & 2 with Crystal Spring, and judging by the students’ performance last month I daresay that she has done more to empower youth of color than ANY district-led effort. Losing her would be a great step backward for racial equity not only at Washburn High School but in the Minneapolis Public Schools as a whole. If the district is serious about closing the achievement gap, it will reinstate Ms. Spring and fully fund her Black Box Theatre program to reach even more students in our community.

  • Kassie

    Let’s say that what the police contend is correct and she is convicted. The crime seems to only be a Misdemeanor and it is highly unlikely she would get any jail time, so she won’t miss work. If that is true, why are they firing her? Do you get fired if you commit any crime? Are there some crimes that are ok? It seems that she is doing a lot more good for the district then she did “bad” in this one instance.

    • Dan

      Plenty of things you can say or do on your own time, some criminal and some not, which can get you fired — even activity that is constitutionally protected. Seems like “…began to confront witnesses who were being interviewed by the officers, telling them not to cooperate” could be some such conduct. I’ll guess it’ll boil down to the contract, if said conduct is proven true.

      • DavidG

        Public employee’s generally have greater protection when it comes to things involving the first amendment.

        • Dan

          I believe everyone has equal protection when it comes to things involving the first amendment.

          • Except that a private business taking action against someone for protesting — for example — is different from a government entity doing so.

            Private business can — to call on regional history — discipline someone for going to a concert benefiting a political candidate, as the Pioneer Press did years ago, while a government agency probably couldn’t get away with it because of the “make no law…” component.

            In this case, a subsequent trial would determine whether she was engaging in a constitutional act or breaking the law.

            Seems to me, though, an employer should wait for the answer to the question.

          • Dan

            Fair point.

            I was thinking more along these lines. Let’s say an accountant for a local retail chain makes public comments at a KKK rally, as does an accountant for a local county. While neither will be punished via the legal system, would the public employee enjoy greater protection from discipline from his or her employer? It’s protected speech.

            Or a teacher fired for having previously appeared in adult films.

          • Dan

            And she should get one, the school jumped the gun recommending termination without waiting for the facts to come in, to see if the allegations have merit.

          • DavidG

            For your KKK accountants example: yes. A county accountant enjoys greater protection from discipline from the employer than an accountant who works for a private company.

            Teachers have been fired for once having appeared in adult films. Most teacher contracts probably contain some kind of “morals” or “conduct unbecoming” (the clause the MPS was trying to use initially here). They still have leeway if the behavior could be show to be disruptive to the operation of the school/classroom.

          • Dan

            Even though it’s protected by the first amendment, which was my main point originally, but yours is taken about public employers having more restrictions. There’s still a line though, is not absolute. I would guess the Grand Wizard in accounting at the county would be canned but I’m no expert.

          • Bet there’d be some due process involved. Wasn’t the case here. This is the very definition of “botched.”

          • Dan

            Agreed on that point.

  • Al

    I dunno. I think a teacher who’s willing–in her account–to try to monitor injustice, is a teacher I’d like to have at my school.