Teacher Bryan Perkins Reinstated After Refugee Student Email, But It's Hardly Time To "Move On"


Yesterday I published an email sent by East Grand Forks teacher Bryan Perkins talking about struggles he’s had with ESL (English as a second language) students, particularly Somali students who Perkins says have poor attendance. That email apparently got Perkins suspended.

Today we get news that Perkins is back on the job after public outcry and a student protest complete with stickers (the principal says students will face “consequences” for leaving class to protest). It’s good that Perkins is back, but meanwhile school administrators still aren’t talking about the situation and the teachers association just wants everyone to move on.

Superintendent David Pace told the Herald Monday that Perkins was placed on paid administrative leave and was investigating the matter. He declined to comment on the suspension or the nature of the investigation.

An open records request filed earlier this week seeking information regarding Perkins’ suspension had not been fulfilled by the School District as of Wednesday.

Tami Schumacher, the president of the teachers association and a teacher at New Heights Elementary School, said she doesn’t know all of the details surrounding Perkins’ suspension but that everything has been handled. The union does not plan to file a grievance, she added.

“I hope we can move on,” she said. “It’s resolved, and he’s going to be back in the classroom, so let’s move on. We’re hoping the best for Bryan. I think he belongs in the classroom, and I’m glad he’ll be back there tomorrow.”

Moving on from this is the last thing we need to do, because there are some real issues here that need to be addressed.

First, and foremost, the public needs to understand how it is that a teacher who expressed perfectly valid concerns over refugee student attendance and performance ended up getting suspended. How can we possibly expect teachers to do a good job if they’re afraid to speak out on these issues? Refugee resettlement is a hot button issue, to be sure, but if we are going to ask teachers to deal with refugee students in schools then shouldn’t those teachers also feel free to express concerns when they have them?

Second, we also need to understand what’s happening with the students Perkins was talking about. Why are there absentee problems? What are the impacts on the other students in class? If these are problems, as Perkins says they are, what can be done to resolve them?

Third, we need to ask if we can be doing refugee resettlements better. I’ve had a half dozen educators in North Dakota contact me saying they are frustrated when refugee students show up at their schools, often with little notice. These students need additional resources. They represent a burden on the schools, and while the educators I’ve spoken to are happy to rise to that challenge, they often feel like they can’t speak out or be critical of the methods for resettlement.

These educators also won’t speak public because, to the first point I made, they’re afraid of what will happen to their careers. Perkins wrote a perfectly professional email voicing concerns and was suspended for it.