Brainerd School Board members and district officials affirmed their commitment to combatting discrimination with a plan that includes the creation of a multidisciplinary task force.
Superintendent Laine Larson began the board meeting Monday, June 8, by reading a letter to the community detailing the comprehensive plan district leaders pledge to begin implementing.
“We cannot accurately say tonight that we at Brainerd Public Schools have all the answers or are doing everything perfectly,” she read. “Although we are proud of the intentional commitment the school district has made during the past years to address equity in our educational system, there remains additional important work to do and will likely always be evolving.”
The board’s verbal commitment comes after Forestview Middle School teacher Kara Hall resigned last week following Facebook comments many deemed racist and inappropriate.
Thousands of people signed a petition calling for Hall’s resignation after the 18-year veteran teacher commented on the riots and protests in Minneapolis using phrases including, “All I see are scary awful blacks people robbing businesses that don’t deserve this,” and, “The creepy, destructive, violent blacks we are all across America watching raid and ruin businesses across America need to be put in jail!”
Community backlash ensued when a school district parent posted screenshots of the comments on Facebook Monday, June 1. Hall resigned two days later and issued a public apology to the community, noting she was horrified following the death of George Floyd while in police custody and made the comments in a heated moment that she regretted.
"The posts that were widely shared regarding the aftermath of this unjust act did not reflect my care and concern for those most impacted. My words were terribly wrong,” Hall wrote, adding she regrets the comments not because she lost a job she valued but because she hurt community members and students she respects and cares about.
“I hope they will forgive me and give me a chance to move forward in a positive way. I want all of my students to know they mattered, and will always matter,” Hall’s apology concluded.
The Brainerd Dispatch put in a public data request regarding formal complaints lodged against Hall. The district provided record of one complaint on file but declined to provide further information, as the complaint was still under review.
The district’s plan
The letter Larson read began by addressing how the recent death of Floyd has set in motion events in the Twin Cities and throughout the world calling attention to the struggle for justice for everyone.
“This past week has also brought to the forefront the struggle of how to address the continued inequality within our own educational system,” Larson read from the letter signed by herself, Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn and School Board Chair Tom Haglin.
The letter included the following actions for the district:
Complete a thorough review of district policies, procedures and handbook expectations to ensure equity for all.
Convene a multidisciplinary advisory task force including representatives who are skilled in cultural competency and racial inequality to bring forth prioritized recommendations for board consideration.
Ensure culturally relevant curriculum offerings aligned with the Minnesota standards and best practice instruction.
Provide additional professional development for all district representatives to increase awareness and a deeper understanding.
Adhere to the professional responsibility to report misconduct, harassment and bullying.
Lastly, Larson said the district will “cultivate a school culture in which brave work, tough conversations and full hearts are the expectations to ensure that each child feels safe, accepted, heard and included.”
Larson said the district will work alongside Central Lakes College; neighboring school districts; regional, state and federal partners; and the community at large to be the systemic change the world needs.
“Together we will pursue educational excellence while building a safe and equitable learning environment and an inclusive future for all. Our students — our future — are counting on us,” Larson read.
Hearing from the board
Board member Charles Black Lance brought recent incidents into perspective by drawing on his background growing up as part of the only American Indian family in his small community. Black Lance said he was fortunate to be the youngest sibling with an older brother and sister who did their best to always protect him from harm’s way.
“Things didn’t simply happen to me without it getting past my brother or my sister,” he said. “... It’s an amazing experience living life as a child in an environment where you know that there was absolute protection, absolute safety from things that simply were not safe. And it was an amazing opportunity to grow up in an environment where that accountability wasn’t something that was discreet. … It was clear.”
As a board member and now as a parent of American Indian children, Black Lance said he feels strongly the district needs to work to provide that sort of protection for all students who feel underrepresented — whether it be due to race, religion or their background — and to do so in an absolute, rather than discrete, manner moving forward.
It’s going to take hard work, he added, to achieve a culturally competent workforce and student body.
“This is something that we have to fight for as a school board, as administration, as faculty,” Black Lance said, emphasizing the issue cannot end here and the district cannot be surprised by ignorance and hatred in the future.
“We need to be proactive, and we need to be absolute in terms of how we handle it,” he said. “Finally, we need to be able to go out and provide a voice to those individual students who might be in a classroom, who might be in a small group that are hearing some things that are hurtful, hateful and whatnot. It should not take this type of environment or this type of situation for us to hear that.”
Board member Bob Nystrom followed up with his disgust over Floyd’s death and a newfound understanding of his position in life as someone who was born and raised in Brainerd.
“I’m 63 years old, and I finally understand that I was born into white privilege in a community that I didn’t think fostered any kind of racial hatred, but it was always under the surface,” Nystrom said.
In a primarily Scandinavian community, Nystrom said he and his neighbors were often ignorant with respect to how they treat minorities, as they simply did not come in contact with many people of color.
As a white man, Nystrom said he knows he would not have undergone the same treatment Floyd did if he were to use a counterfeit $20 bill.
“We have to do something different,” he said. “It is not enough that the teacher that recently resigned, resigned. We have to do more.”
Haglin thanked Black Lance and Nystrom for their comments and assured the community the board will continue to work on this issue.
“This won’t die in our minutes,” Haglin said. “It will continue to be worked on and worked on hard and brought up frequently so we can see our progress made here.”
Board member Ruth Nelson echoed Nystrom’s statements, as a white person who grew up in Hopkins, and requested board members — as district leaders — be included in any cultural competency training opportunities offered to staff members.
Larson assured her that would be the case.
Board member Reed Campbell was not present Monday.