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UPDATE: Protest erupts over Brainerd yearbook comment

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Stephanie Tougas expresses her dissatisfaction with a published Brainerd yearbook statement by a student at a rally Friday on the sidewalk near Mickey’s Pizza and Subs. The statement spurred a reaction from students, administration and the general public. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Video and Gallery2 / 4
Comments from a Brainerd High School student in the 2016-2017 yearbook using harsh words towards U.S. President Donald Trump has caused a stir in the community. The photo illustration shows the page that appeared. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch3 / 4
Brainerd students on both sides of the issue listen Friday to Kalo Brooks defend the Brainerd School District during a protest about a controversial Brainerd yearbook statement on the sidewalk near Mickeys Pizza and Subs in Brainerd. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Video and Gallery4 / 4

A violent comment about President Donald Trump made by a Brainerd High School student in the 2016-17 yearbook has people asking how the comment ever made it into the yearbook.

One page of the yearbook asks students for their feelings about Trump. One of the four commenters, a sophomore, had harsh words for the president.

"I would like to behead him," the student said. "I do not like him."

A poll graphic on the page asks "Do you like Trump?" It's not clear how many students responded to the poll, but the "No" responses outweigh the "Yes" responses. It's not clear what the margin is between the two or how the poll was conducted.

Shelley Hansch heard about the page from her daughter, who attends BHS. Hansch was astonished when she saw the page, she said, and couldn't believe the district would allow the comments to be printed.

"I couldn't believe that there were no checks and balances," Hansch said. "Somebody approved it."

Hansch was one of about 40-50 people who gathered at Mickey's Pizza and Subs Friday afternoon across the street from BHS. The impromptu rally included a mix of community members and students. Some of the community members ended up in a shouting argument with a group of students who expressed support for the school district.

"I'm here to show the school district there is support for them in the community," said Kaylo Brooks, who held a sign in support of the district. "We love our teachers, we love our educators, we care about our administrators. We have a phenomenal school district here, and I'm not going to sit on my couch and watch it be vilified by any of you."

Someone should lose their job because of the lack of oversight, Hansch said, and someone needs to be held accountable.

"I can't believe the entire thing was run by students," Hansch said. "I can't believe that it could have gone through print without it going through the proper channels."

Ultimately, the situation makes the school look bad, Hansch said. Politics don't belong in a public school yearbook, she said.

"The question shouldn't have been asked," Hansch said. "The whole page should have been wiped out."

Jake Berg, a senior at BHS, said he heard about the yearbook page on Facebook and looked at it in a friend's yearbook. The comments were biased and shouldn't have been in the yearbook, he said.

"I don't believe beheading anybody and putting it in a yearbook should be in there," Berg said. "No matter if it was Trump, (Hillary) Clinton or (Barack) Obama."

If similar comments had been made about Obama or Clinton, the comments would have been labeled as racist or sexist, Berg said, and been removed from the yearbook.

"If you would have said something like that to another student, you probably would have reaped the consequences," Berg said. "And they probably would have been pretty hefty."

Berg doesn't have a problem with the school district, he said, but he does have a problem with the comments ending up in the yearbook.

"Someone made a mistake," Berg said. "I think they should have been more careful about what they put in there."

On Friday afternoon, the school district released the following statement on its website: "The administration of Brainerd Public Schools has been notified that the 2016-2017 high school yearbook contains highly disrespectful statements from students about political figures, including the president of the United States. The administration was previously unaware of the students' statements in the yearbook. The district does not support or otherwise endorse any disrespectful or politically based statements that are in the yearbook and apologizes for the statements that were included. While the district supports free speech, the disrespectful statements in the yearbook are contrary to the basic educational mission of the district and should not have been included in a school sponsored publication. The administration is currently investigating how this occurred and is reviewing the district's processes to ensure that this type of unacceptable situation does not occur in the future. The administration deeply regrets that the existing processes for reviewing the yearbook did not result in the removal of the inappropriate statements."

The BHS yearbook features grades 9-12 and is put together by students in a yearbook class. The yearbook adviser is Joe Wagner, who did not return calls for comment Friday. Superintendent Laine Larson said Friday she did not know what the existing editing process is for the yearbook, and the district would be investigating the process.

The company that published the Brainerd High School yearbook said it's working with the school district on its response to the controversial page.

Jeff Peterson, vice president of marketing for Jostens, said the company has no editorial oversight over the thousands of yearbooks it produces for high schools across the country each year. Peterson said Paul Sorensen, the sales representative working with the Brainerd School District, was sharing potential solutions with school district representatives Friday. Peterson described an incident like the one in Brainerd as rare.

"At the end of the day, Jostens, in rare cases that something like this gets through that editorial goalie, if you will, then we work with the school to see how they want to address it," Peterson said.

Peterson said Jostens can offer full-page stickers to cover up the offending page.

"When they're applied to the book, it looks like a full page," Peterson said.

Peterson said it's up to the school whether they choose to recall the yearbooks and apply the stickers, or whether they hand the stickers out to students to apply themselves.

Peterson said the handling of refunds would be up to the school district.

Yearbook costs range from $50-$60 depending on when students order the books. If a family or a student would like to return their yearbook, the district will refund their money, Larson said.

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said by phone from St. Paul she has been inundated with calls from parents wanting to know more about the situation. It was careless for school employees to allow those comments to run in the yearbook, Ruud said. The student's name will now be synonymous with those comments, she said.

"They should be protected, it's pretty ridiculous," Ruud said. "How did a teacher or adviser think that's OK?"

The student's comment about Trump is outrageous, Ruud said, and an adult should have told the student a comment like that is not appropriate.

"Do we teach our children that that's an OK comment?" Ruud said.

Mark Johnson, assistant special agent in charge with the U.S. Secret Service field office in Minneapolis, confirmed the agency was aware of the comment and was investigating. Johnson said he could not comment on the agency's investigative practices, but agents may come to the city where the threat originated as part of its investigation.