Theodore Olson was a veteran special education teacher in good standing with St. Paul Public Schools until two weeks ago. Now the district has put him on paid administrative leave after receiving complaints about Facebook posts of his that some have deemed racially insensitive.
Those posts set off long discussion threads when Rashad Turner shared them on the Facebook page for BlackLivesMatter St. Paul. Turner leads BLM in St. Paul and is known for drawing heat to entities accused of racism.
Olson’s first post mocks the SPPS’ superintendent, Valeria Silva, for enforcing a plan to mainstream special education students and reduce racial disparities in school suspensions.
Here is Olson’s first post:
That was just for starters. It was his characterization of his students in a second post that caused trouble.
“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,” Olson wrote.
While clapback was immediate from BLM, some of Olson’s colleagues fired back, defending him vigorously in social media.
They said his words were not racist and he was being taken out of context.
“What he was talking about wasn’t racism, it was safe schools,” one teacher told news reporters.
On its face that’s plausible. Olson’s posts did not specify race. That has allowed for differences of opinion as to his intent. And, it is true that issues of teacher and student safety are increasing as incidents of school violence, some that have resulted in injuries to teachers, are reported in mainstream media.
For some readers, a couple of ambiguous Facebook posts weren’t enough to settle the case.
Yet, there were claims Olson had published a blog for years that was loaded with offensive depictions of students and their parents. Olson is said to have restricted access to that blog after the Facebook frenzy drew attention to it.
Now activists are circulating over sixty pages of Olson’s blog posts.
Reading them raises questions about his fitness to teach students of different races in an urban environment. They also reveal a teacher deeply troubled, burned out, and generally negative about his work life
Olson writes about how he wants his blog to present a “greatest hits of fights” that highlight the student misbehavior he has seen.
“They’re a series of true school fights I remember from Minneapolis and Saint Paul schools. I’ve changed the names. Why would I focus just on fights without explaining antecedents, circumstances, without interventions, support, or consequences for these students actions? I’m hoping by throwing them on this blog, I talk straight to the reader’s sensitivity about how much fighting goes on, and get people to ask why.”
Black Lives Matter, kinda
When Turner put Olson’s original Facebook post on blast he called Olson “An example of a white supremacist teacher.”
People took issue with that.
One poster, local activist Lydia Howell, wrote: “The teacher Theo Olson (a Special Education teacher for 10 years) did NOT mention the RACE of any student–what he talked about was BEHAVIORS that DISRUPT LEARNING for ALL students in a classroom. That Rashad Turner is calling THIS TEACHER A “WHITE SUPREMACIST” and demanding the teacher be FIRED for these FB posts is totally OUT OF TOUCH WITH REALITY.”
Perhaps Ms. Howell would feel differently after reading Olson’s blog posts.
In January 2016 he wrote “The f—ing life of a misanthrope…I don’t know how to be the good guy in the struggle. I will try, and try some more. But there’s either something wrong with me, or in my union fighting for safety while demanding supplication to the Kool-Aid, ‘I’m white, so I’m a white supremacist.'”
That sentiment shows up throughout his blog posts. Olson describes his students as “monsters” and he proves the point in a series of thumbnail sketches of one student of color after another.
“Third grader Phillip was so fed up with being teased all school year, “Faggot! You Gay! Ya faggot mama lovin’ gay boyyy! He ain’t go do nothin’, pillow poochy fat one! Till he finally did with a low growl, then a high-pitched squall, and went winging in every direction, smacking Leander right in the face, and Dante in the shoulder, a couple girls in their breasts, and spiral notebooks off desktops.”
Beandre is handsome, but a bragger who meets his match. A “new boy transfer” named Exeter derisively says “Who he? He aint nothin'” about Beandre. Soon afterwards “Exeter had ‘stole off (cold-cocked) Beandre’s nose, gushing red everywhere…’
Ceasar Slocum “went to jail by winter” every year of his high school career.
Cyn’thea and Jasmine, fourth graders, got into a fight because one grabbed the others’ braids.
L’Vaughnta and his “EBD gangbanging cousin Stinsin” beat an innocent boy so badly his “eye nearly popped out.”
Anesha and Tatiana once were close enough to shoplift together at the Mall of America, but now they’ve come to blows because Anesha saw Tatiana dancing with D’Ray at a middle school dance.
La’Crezius was a student from Minneapolis’ black Northside. Olson says this fifth grade student is “La Craziest” because “When he got mad, his mouth foamed, spit flew, he growled accusations, and would pace the room. He knocked one kid out with three chair smacks to the top of the head.”
There are more examples. None of them are good. The kids are black, Native American, and in once case, Asian.
That last one is particularly disturbing because Olson makes fun of the way “Meng” talks. That post is called “U not my Frative teacher!”
Como High has a sizable population of Asian students.
These are the realities Olson sees as a priority for addressing. He even berates the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers for not getting it. His union, he says, is too busy working with Black Lives Matter and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change instead of focusing on classroom management issues.
He says “We’ve got REAL BATTLES to fight, and they’re in our hallways; they’re not out at a Black Lives Matter rally at the Mall of America.”
That’s a prophetic remark, because when teachers supportive of his cause created an online petition calling for Silva’s resignation, they cited her inability to put Black Lives Matter in its place.
Not content with dragging people of color, women also get it pretty bad in Olson’s posts too.
The mothers of his students are all derelict. They cuss loudly at their kids in front of teachers and fail to show up at critical times.
He says one of them “stinks like an ashtray with beer in it.”
And, that isn’t the worst of it. The real hostility is reserved for women who supervise him.
Here’s how he describes working for Bernadeia Johnson, Minneapolis’ former schools superintendent:
“I’ve been my only catcher in the rye since walking into Hall Community school in north Minneapolis in 1999, and the principal, now Mpls superintendent, greeted me with, “I got you”…She was an imperial dictator. I’ve never met a nastier, more unstable, megalomaniacal bully of a principal. And now she’s in charge of Mpls schools.”
One of the teachers he co-taught with at Hall Community School was similarly wanting:
“I had 95% African-American students, and team taught third grade in the same room all day with an African-American woman who really was marginally qualified as an instructor out of the St. Mary’s Collaborative Urban Educator (CUE) program. I remember her terrible grammar and spelling, but her street cred with kids was immense. I remember her telling a kids in a whispered growl to put something down, saying, Pet it dan!”
More recently, his supervisor in St. Paul public schools is presented as a task master who micromanages him when he gets behind on paper work or fails to see the value in using asset-based language with students. He says she has never done his job, and she acts as if she is “the first person on Earth to discover inequity in education.
When you add Silva to the mix there are four women who have been his superiors that he has seen as unqualified.
‘Not one second longer’
With all of this attention on Olson the voices of other teachers are drowned out. Some want it told that there are caring teachers at Como High who believe in the students and love their jobs.
Almost none of them are willing to talk on the record due to fear of reprisal from colleagues who share Olson’s views.
Kristy Pierce is one educator willing to speak up. After 20 years working in education, 12 years of that with SPPS, little scares her.
“Como Park Senior High school is filled with amazing students, families and administration,” she says.
“The students, in my opinion, are not running our building and are not in control. We are a high school and do our children make mistakes? Of course, they’re children. Our kids come to us with issues that many adults would have a difficult time coping with. Do those things sometimes get in the way? Of course they do. What we do really well is build on their resilience.”
In the end, there is one thing that Olson and Turner may agree on: it’s time for Olson to consider employment.
One of the demands BLM made to the SPPS was that Olson be fired.
To date he hasn’t resigned, but a blog post from July 29, 2014 titled “Not one second longer” shows he had considered it.
He says: “I’m a public special education teacher facing a crisis, a something I’m shamed to tell you. I’ve lost the will…I’m in a shut down, traumatized mindset…I’ve stuck it out 15 years, eight of them in special education, and I don’t know if I can do it. one. second. longer.”
****Update: Readers may be concerned that students are named in Olson’s writings and this blog post. He says on his blog that he has made up the names.