By Jordan Gerard
Editor, The Caledonia Argus
Parents were not happy with how a requested proclamation from the governor’s office was handled by Houston School District on May 25.
At its regular meeting on June 3, Houston School Board had an audience of about 15 people. Superintendent Krin Abraham read a statement explaining the situation.
On May 24, at about 11:30 p.m., Minnesota school administrators received an email from the education commissioner addressing the governor’s request (not requirement) that schools participate in the 9 minutes, 29 seconds of silence planned for May 25 at 1 p.m., the one year anniversary of the death of George Floyd.
Abraham saw the email at 7:15 a.m. the next morning, sent it to the onsite principals at 7:23 a.m., and spent a chunk of the morning talking to both onsite principals and the Minnesota Virtual Academy principal. Only administration received the email, not school board members.
MNVA students received an email about the proclamation, which was automatically copied to parents. The email said students could participate if they wished, but did not have to participate.
In the onsite discussion at about 9:30 a.m., administration discussed the walkouts after the Parkland shooting, and recalled that parents expressed their kids should be allowed to participate in the walk out, Abraham said.
In this case, they decided that nearly 10 minutes of silence would not be educationally appropriate for the students. They also decided the message would be about kindness, and not centered on the governor’s proclamation.
For the elementary students, the school’s social worker addressed the topic in a “developmentally appropriate way” during socio-emotional learning time, Abraham explained.
For high school students, principal Michael Mangan discussed with teachers how to approach the topic. He read a statement to the students at 11:55 a.m. (the 1 p.m. for a half day), “Today Gov. Walz has proclaimed that the State of Minnesota withhold a moment of silence beginning at 1 pm. for 9 minutes and 29 seconds in recognition of the one year anniversary of the death of George Floyd. The moment of silence will honor racism and discrimination in Minnesota. All Minnesotans are encouraged to participate in this moment of silence. As a school, we are going to take a brief moment of silence to think about how we as a community and school think and create an encouraging place for all to feel welcome, regardless of our differences, race, ability, gender or sexual orientation ... Thank you Hurricanes.”
Abraham said there was less than a minute of silence.
“The silence was not designed to honor anyone. It was asking students to be kind and respectful, which is a typical topic in the ‘Move This World’ reflection time,” Abraham said. “No student was asked to stand or kneel, put their heads on their desks. No student was disciplined, but they were asked to be quiet during reflection time as they are every day. Any student who wanted to participate at 1 p.m. was allowed to do so.”
However, parents expressed anger and disappointment that they did not have enough notice to discuss a difficult topic with their kids beforehand and how their kids felt about it.
“He’s not a man I want my son to acknowledge. We did not have proper notice. My son would have been home that day,” parent Heidi Olson said.
Brandon Olson said he never received an email. He said that if the governor felt schools should have it, it should have taken place in the hallway, cafeteria or gym.
“... Instead, my kid was told to shut his mouth, his opinion doesn’t matter, do what he’s told. I’ve had multiple parents tell me the same thing, except she told her class to shut the f--- up,” he explained. “I just want to know why my kid was told, had to stand, he had to do it.”
He added that if his “child has the option not to participate, he should be allowed the option not to participate,” adding that the moment of silence should be done outside of the classroom.
He also questioned why Houston was one of the schools in the area to do it. A few other schools did not participate in the proclamation, citing they did not have enough time to prepare students, teachers and parents. Other schools did participate in it for the full 9 minutes 29 seconds, in addition some having kids put their heads on their desks.
“Nobody should be forced to do it,” he concluded.
Kendra VanGundy said her issue was the school district trying to push political views on kids.
“I’m fine with you passing on words of encouragement, kindness, all of those great things. George Floyd’s name never had to be mentioned,” she said.
Amy Kulas said she would have appreciated notification earlier in the day, and suggested the school could have used communication like they do for snow days.
“I was offended that they presented this to the children to decide, and sometimes they’re too young to know whether or not they should participate,” she said.
Abraham clarified further that students in all grades stand for the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, but have the option to choose not to. She also clarified that no student was asked to stand during the moment of silence. Students were doing community service all over town at 1 p.m. that day, and they were allowed to walk away from the group and take the moment of silence if they chose.
“We had to find a way to allow those students to do it if they wanted to do it, without fear of repercussion or retribution,” Abraham said.
School board member Arlin Peterson said he called the governor’s office and voiced two points to them: short notice to administration and secondly, when he was a teacher, they were encouraged not to take a political view and they should present both sides, especially in history classes.
Parents encouraged the school district to work on communication to parents. They also questioned how the date would be handled next year.
Latisha Witt said the district could have sent an email explaining what was asked of the school district, and let parents know they were coming up with a plan.
“...You didn’t have ample notice, which is obvious, sometimes maybe inaction is better,” she said. “With something like this, I think the parents do have a right to know.”
Any personnel matters related to this incident must be discussed in a closed meeting. The topic could also not be on the agenda because every person’s name would need to be listed who wanted to speak, thus public comment gave opportunity for everyone to speak. The board assured the audience that incoming superintendent Mary Morem would be aware of the conversation.
In other news, the board approved several annual contracts and agreements, including Minnesota School Board Association membership, Southeast Libraries Cooperating, an unrequested leave of absence for a MNVA teacher and rescinded the face covering policy effective June 5.
The next meeting of the Houston School Board will be June 17, at 6 p.m. in the high school library.