ST. PAUL -- The 16-year-old at the center of a St. Paul high school assault is sorry a teacher was seriously injured, but he didn’t realize the person who restrained him from behind was a teacher, his mother said Wednesday.
Fon’Tae O’Bannon thought it was a fellow student and was trying to defend himself during a fight at the Central High School cafeteria Friday, said Venus Hall, the teen’s mother.
O’Bannon reacted by picking up the man “to get him off him and threw him down,” Hall said. After O’Bannon realized it was a teacher, he calmed down, she said. But prosecutors have accused the teen of continuing to assault the teacher and an assistant principal, along with charging at and struggling with a police officer.
A juvenile petition filed Tuesday said O’Bannon picked up science teacher John Ekblad, “forcefully slam(med)” him onto a chair and table, and choked him as he lay on the ground until he lost consciousness.
Ekblad was hospitalized and diagnosed with a concussion and traumatic brain injury, but has been released from the hospital. The assistant principal had a grapefruit size bruise on his neck.
“He did touch him, but it wasn’t maliciously, it wasn’t something that he was trying to attack this teacher,” Hall said. “That’s not what happened. My son is 16 and has never got in a fight before.”
Students leaving Central on Wednesday were mixed in their response to the fight. Some said the teacher was too aggressive when he intervened, causing the incident to escalate. Others said there is no excuse for what happened and that the altercation points to a bigger problem of violence in the school district.
Sophomore Pierce Bowar believes it’s important the incident is getting the widespread attention it is because of the serious consequences it led to.
“Mr. Ekblad has brain damage so people should be talking about this,” he said. Bowar said many kids know Ekblad as the most likely authority figure to bust up a brawl at school, though he said he’s generally well liked.
Bowar, who transferred to Central from Wayzata last year, said he believes the media tend to focus on problems at inner-city schools.
“We have the same things at Wayzata but we get more publicity for it here and I kind of feel like that is not a good thing,” he said.
Friday’s incident at Central began when a 17-year-old student started calling O’Bannon’s 15-year-old brother names in the cafeteria, the boys’ mother said. The 17-year-old then “got in (the 15-year-old’s) face and pushed” him and he pushed back, Hall said.
It escalated to the 17-year-old punching the 15-year-old in the face and O’Bannon stepping in to defend his brother, Hall said. She questions how well staff was monitoring the cafeteria, saying they could have stopped the bullying before it became physical.
Other students joined in the fight and soon Ekblad put O’Bannon in a “bear hug from behind,” Hall said. She wants to know why school staff restrained a student and says the teacher had not identified himself, so her son thought it was a fellow student attacking him.
But the Ramsey County attorney’s office said the assault was much more serious than O’Bannon throwing Ekblad off him. On Tuesday, they charged O’Bannon with felony assault, gross misdemeanor assault and obstructing the legal process. He has pleaded not guilty.
O’Bannon’s 15-year-old brother, who prosecutors accuse of yelling profanities at staff and punching an assistant principal several times in the chest, was charged with fourth-degree assault and obstructing legal process.
Some Central students describe Ekblad as a well-liked teacher who was just doing his job to keep kids safe, while one who witnessed Friday’s fight said he is known as a discipline enforcer at Central and that it’s not uncommon for kids to “end up on the ground” after he breaks up a fight.
Sophomore Arlandus Montgomery said she watched the fight unfold after her cousin and another freshman had a disagreement over sports statistics. She saw O’Bannon step in to defend his brother and, when it turned physical, she said Ekblad lunged at O’Bannon.
Ekblad could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
“(Ekblad) shouldn’t have grabbed him like that; any student would have reacted the same way,” Montgomery said.
She added that while she doesn’t think fighting is overall a problem at the school, she said too many kids are allowed to push boundaries and curse at teachers unchecked.
“Our fighting level is not that high but the disrespect level is,” Montgomery said.
Billy Xiong, a Central senior, said he’s witnessed only one fight at the school this year but he’s heard about a handful of others.
“Most of the time they are just little fights, you know, that end quickly … this one obviously went way too far,” Xiong said. “I mean a teacher got hurt, he went to the hospital.”
He was surprised to hear the teacher involved was Ekblad, whom he said everybody “loves” and who is known throughout the building as the authority figure most likely to break up altercations.
“Most students wouldn’t want to mess with him,” Xiong said. “I didn’t expect him to be the one who got hurt.”
When Hall’s sons began attending Central this fall, she hoped it would be a good place for them. But she said she’s been able to take a close look at the school because she volunteered there twice a week and she saw it as a disorganized environment.
Others parents said they’ve found Central to be an exemplary school. One of Ann Hobbie’s sons is a sophomore and another graduated last spring. In their years at the school, Hobbie said neither witnessed any fights nor did they feel unsafe.
“From what I know, the administrators and law enforcement are doing everything right, to this point,” Hobbie posted on a Macalester-Groveland Facebook group Wednesday. “Central should still make St. Paul proud. Let’s not damn the school and condemn the district on this one.”
Hall said she hasn’t heard from the school district about what discipline her sons face, but regardless, she plans to send them to school outside St. Paul in the future. The brothers didn’t have prior discipline histories, the district’s superintendent said Tuesday.
O’Bannon is being held in the Ramsey County Juvenile Detention Center.
He played football at Central, worked at a pizza place and was a baby-sitter. He aspired to work in law enforcement, but Hall thinks he won’t want to now that she said he’s been accused of “so many lies.”
“We’re not talking about a kid who is destructive,” she said. “He’s a hard worker. A mistake did happen and he’s sitting in there right now worried about what’s going to happen with his future because of it.”