by Jim Boyle
A short video clip of a classroom exchange on the topic of looting that was recorded and placed on social media stirred controversy in the local school district this past spring.
That clip touched off a battery of reactions during the latter part of the 2020-21 school year. It not only lit up social media, it also garnered unflattering media attention.
Some called for the instructor’s removal. Others came to his defense.
Some people felt compelled to speak at open forum, presenting challenges to the Elk River Area School Board, which was concerned about data privacy.
Superintendent Dan Bittman, however, did confirm this week that situation was not one of the impetuses behind recent changes to policies on public participation at board meetings or the district’s addition of parameters for discussion of controversial topics in classrooms.
District officials have said little publicly about the uproar created on social media over a student’s recording. Bittman explained the situation at a community partners meeting back in May, prefacing his remarks by saying he had to be thoughtful with personnel matters from a legal standpoint.
“What I will start with is I am really glad when I was growing up that social media was not available,” he told community leaders in May. “I would hate in any situation for people to spew hate, make accusations or decide the full story based on short clip, even when it sounds difficult or controversial.”
He went on to say that school districts are institutions of learning.
“That is our sole purpose, to facilitate conversations and to provide opportunities to have a safe environment where (students) can talk and learn from each other, hearing all different types of perspectives, so that we can help them to be critical thinkers and make good decisions,” Bittman said. “What I can tell you legally about that specific situation is that three different classes of students invited that particular individual into classrooms, and three classrooms — those students — came up with a series of eight questions they felt were important and wanted the school district or equity specialists to weigh in on as part of curriculum that aligns with the state standards.”
In that particular situation, one of the questions related to why someone in the Black community might think that looting and/or some of the tactics that have been used in other places would be a useful tool or appropriate.
“What did you not hear in that video was that immediately after that and multiple times throughout that session, that person was very direct to say I and the school district do not support looting,” Bittman said. “We (the district) do not condone violence. We do not condone any illegal activity.”