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School Board: Yearbook investigation is complete

A file photo of a page in the 2016-17 Brainerd High School yearbook which has generated controversy.

Brainerd Public Schools has completed an investigation into how a Brainerd High School student's violent comments about President Donald Trump made it into the 2016-17 BHS yearbook.

The Brainerd School Board Monday night fielded questions from two community members during the public comment portion of the board meeting.

Board chair Bob Nystrom read a statement which rehashed many of the points from a statement the district made about the issue on May 19. A comprehensive investigation into the issue has been completed, he said, and the district has received a report on the investigation.

"The district has begun taking appropriate action, including personnel action, based on the outcome of the investigation," Nystrom said.

The administration is reviewing the process for student publications, Nystrom said, in order to prevent a similar situation in the future. He declined to share more information about personnel actions, citing state statute chapter 13 on government data practices.

"We share your frustration with the limits that the law places on the disclosure of information," Nystrom said.

Jeff Czeczok said he didn't see how personnel action based on the investigation couldn't be made public. The investigation report is confidential and between the board and the investigator, Superintendent Laine Larson said. It may be made public in the future, she said, but it is private for now.

Larson previously said the district would offer refunds to any students who wanted to return their yearbooks. After being asked by Czeczok, she said she didn't know how many books had been refunded, or how many students had taken full-page stickers to place over the offending page. The principals at BHS announced the refunds and the stickers were available to students who wanted them, she said.

Czeczok asked the board which yearbook would be given to the Brainerd Public Library, one with a sticker covering up the offending page or one without a sticker.

"I didn't know that the library got one," Larson said. "So that would be something I would have to check."

Czeczok said Bill Dian, who addressed the board after Czeczok, had looked in past BHS yearbooks at the library, many of which mentioned U.S. presidents.

"That's something that I think, maybe you want to review as well," Czeczok said.

The district will begin meeting next week to seriously look at its policies on yearbooks, Larson said. Recommendations will be brought to the district's legal counsel before they are presented to the board, she said.

The district is likely going to hold a vote on a bond referendum within the next year, Czeczok said. The board should remember this as it determines what actions to take following the yearbook controversy, he said.

"There may be some issues related to people voting just out of spite, because you did not take proper action," Czeczok said. "I'm looking forward to seeing you take proper action."

Larson said the district hired the firm Rupp, Anderson, Squires & Waldspurger, a law firm in Minneapolis, to conduct the investigation. Via email, Larson said the district has not received a bill from the firm for the investigation. The board's official legal representation for 2017 is Pemberton Law Firm.

Dian said he was amazed the district had to hire an outside investigator to look into the yearbook issue.

"The investigation was quite comprehensive," Larson replied. "It was very comprehensive."

The BHS yearbook features grades 9-12 and is put together by students in a yearbook class. The yearbook adviser is Joe Wagner, who was put on paid administrative leave while the district investigated the issue.

The Brainerd Dispatch submitted an information request to the school district asking for more information on the investigation.

Larson confirmed complaints have been made against Wagner and BHS Principal Andrea Rusk, and both those complaints have been fully investigated.

The Minnesota Government Data Practices in statute 13.43 states the final disposition of a disciplinary action and the specific reasons and data documenting the basis for the action, is public. This excludes data that would identify confidential sources who are public employees.

"The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act provides that when an employee has the right to grieve a disciplinary action under a collective bargaining agreement, a 'final disposition' of disciplinary action does not occur until the time for filing a grievance passes," Larson wrote via email. "Or, if a timely grievance is filed, until the conclusion of the arbitration proceedings."

Spenser Bickett

Spenser Bickett covers the Brainerd City Council and education. A native of the Twin Cities, Bickett attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he majored in journalism with a minor in political science. After graduation, he worked for the International Falls Journal as a staff writer before coming to Brainerd.

 
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