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After anti-LGBTQ+ presentation, school district takes aim at free speech

Students have been asked to remove buttons and pins celebrating Pride month & a teacher’s rainbow flag was removed from their classroom

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Student-led protests at Becker High School during March School Board meeting with anti-LGBTQ hate group (Screenshot/YouTube)

BECKER, Mn. – In the aftermath of negative press attention over a presentation by an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group, students and staff in a Minnesota school district have been discouraged, and in some cases prohibited, from speaking with the media, multiple sources said.

When the Becker Public School Board voted to allow the Minnesota Child Protection League (CPL) to address them in a March 14 meeting, student-led protests were covered by local and national news outlets, including this one.  

Two members subsequently resigned, one of whom publicly acknowledged their decision to step down was motivated by negative coverage surrounding CPL’s presentation, which included false statements and extreme language about LGBTQ+ people.

During a May 2 meeting, the board unveiled a new communications plan, ostensibly written for the purpose of lightening the burden on staff by having them direct media inquiries to the superintendent’s office.

But staff members in the district’s schools have not been given a copy of the document, nor have they been briefed on any changes to rules and guidelines governing their interactions with the press.

Instead, according to a staff member and a teacher, they were instructed by administrators not to engage with reporters. Becker High School students Ella Rick and Erin Deering, along with other sources contacted for this article, said their impression is officials are toeing the line between restrictions that infringe on constitutionally protected speech.

Becker School Board Director Aaron Jurek, Chair Mark Swanson, Vice Chair Connie Robertson, and Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Rick and Deering said school officials’ efforts to discourage or prohibit interactions with the media – not limited to adult employees at the school – are consistent with their practice of restricting free speech and expression they find objectionable.

Students have been asked to remove buttons and pins celebrating Pride month, they said. A staff member added that in at least one case, a teacher’s rainbow flag was removed from their classroom.

According to two civil rights attorneys, depending on the facts and circumstances of each instance, the district’s restrictions on speech and expression might run afoul of First Amendment protections.

“Public employees have the right to speak out on matters of public concern,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU of Minnesota. “The district could craft a policy that prohibits staff from being a spokesperson for the district, but they cannot restrain staff from speaking about matters of public concern in their personal capacity on their own time unless that speech causes disruption in the workplace,” she said.

“The district has even less ability to regulate off-campus student speech, as long as that speech occurs on the student’s own time and not in the context of a school-related activity,” Nelson added.

Scott McCoy, interim deputy legal director and head of LGBTQ rights and special litigation for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), said it might be wise for staff members to consult the Teachers Union or attorneys specializing in employment law about the school’s and district’s policies governing their interactions with the press. 

Regarding cases where students were asked to remove Pride buttons, Nelson said, “If the symbols and messages are displayed by students on their person (a rainbow t-shirt or pin for example), that is generally considered to be student speech. Even in the absence of a formal policy, school officials may not censor or punish student speech unless it is reasonably likely to cause – or has actually caused – a material interference with or substantial disruption of the educational environment.”

McCoy agreed with Nelson’s assessment that Pride buttons are probably constitutionally protected student speech, given that they, presumably, are not disruptive and do not condone or endorse illegal activity. 

Restrictions, therefore, may potentially present a cause of action for a lawsuit, McCoy said. But these cases are more difficult to bring when restrictions are not outlined in written policies, and in cases where they are applied inconsistently – as, for example, if some teachers instruct students to remove Pride pins while others do not, McCoy said. “You’d have to look to see if the school district is endorsing that kind of conduct and whether it’s showing favoritism to a teacher based on whether they’re for or against that kind of thing,” he said. 

As opposed to free expression by students on their person or on their personal property, officials have more leeway to regulate displays that are made in classrooms or on school bulletin boards, Nelson said, but in those cases restrictions must be viewpoint-neutral and “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical interests.”

Concerns reinforced by far-reaching order for teachers to turn over documents

Last week, Schmidt instructed staff to turn over documents – from post-it notes to recorded conversations and handwritten memos – dated between February 1 and the CPL’s presentation to the board on March 14.

Staff were also informed that the district will be going through their emails as part of the order, which was made pursuant to a government data request filed by Chris Klippen. Klippen is a local attorney whose presentation ahead of CPL during the board meeting shared many of the hate group’s positions regarding and statements concerning LGBTQ+ issues.

As this news service reported, some staff members responded to news of last week’s request with concern that it is intended as a “fishing expedition” to find evidence that they may have encouraged or condoned students’ protest of CPL’s presentation, possibly as grounds to reprimand or terminate them.  

Klippen, Schmidt and the Becker School Board did not respond to repeated requests for comment on and clarification regarding the purpose of the data request.  

McCoy, who has led much of the SPLC’s pioneering litigation over issues involving LGBTQ+ youth in schools, said he has never heard of circumstances in which a request of this nature was issued to teachers and staff.

With co-counsel including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, in 2012 the SPLC secured a consent order in the Minnesota District Court to resolve complaints that schools in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin district “presented a frightening and harmful toxic environment for LGBT students.” The settlement included significant protections for LGBTQ+ students in the district along with a comprehensive plan to root out and punish bullying and harassment against them.

It was the first time McCoy said he had squared off against representatives from CPL, who were engaged in advocacy against the plaintiffs’ case. Finding ample evidence that it “has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics,” the SPLC designated CPL a hate group in 2013. McCoy cited examples including extreme statements by founder Barb Anderson, who in 2014 claimed the LGBTQIA acronym will soon be expanded to add “P” for “pedophile.”

Asked for comment about the district’s document order, CPL Board Member Julie Quist said “CPL has no involvement at all in Chris Klippen’s request for data from the Becker School District, nor have we ever discussed the matter with him. You are the first to ask us for any information at all, in spite of the Becker story being widely reported in numerous venues, including the Star Tribune and the St. Cloud Times. The reporting has been shoddy, to put it kindly.”

A Becker staff member said Klippen and CPL clearly have a close relationship whether or not the group chooses to acknowledge their proximity, and not only because of the ideological alignment of their attitudes toward LGBTQ+ issues. The school board voted to allow CPL to present during their March 14 meeting, he said, and was then addressed by Klippen before CPL’s Quist took the stage. How could that have happened without their coordination?

Despite her position on press coverage of the matter, Quist did not respond to repeated follow-up requests for clarification.

Footage of the March 14 school board meeting has revealed the individual on stage who ran the slides for CPL during their presentation is Amanda Rodgers, a business education teacher at neighboring Monticello High School.

She did not return a request for comment through Facebook Messenger.

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Minnesota

Minnesota teachers fear retaliation over support of LGBTQ+ students

According to staff, teachers are afraid the move is intended as “a fishing expedition to prove that teachers encouraged students to protest”

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Screenshot/ FOX 9 Minneapolis-St. Paul

BECKER, Mn. – Following protests over the anti-LGBTQ+ Minnesota Child Protection League’s (MNCPL) March 14 presentation to the Becker County School Board, staff in all the district’s public schools will be required to turn over a trove of documents related to that event, The Los Angeles Blade has learned.

According to a staff member at Becker High School, teachers are afraid the move is intended as “a fishing expedition to prove that teachers encouraged students to protest” in a bid to “get the Board to fire” them.

The mandatory request was filed by Chris Klippen, a local attorney who addressed the School Board on March 14 ahead of the representative from MNCPL, echoing many of the group’s lies about LGBTQ+ people and objections to measures designed to protect the community’s youth.

As the Los Angeles Blade reported, controversy over the School Board’s decision to hear a presentation from the MNCPL was the latest in a series of events that have escalated tensions between area schools and LGBTQ youth, along with their families and allies.

Last year, a Facebook post that falsely claimed classrooms were replacing the American flag with the Pride flag invited comments that included homophobic and transphobic remarks. When students shared screen shots of the post on their social media pages, the Becker chief of police demanded they remove them, earning a rebuke from the ACLU of Minnesota.

Becker Public Schools/Facebook

LGBTQ+ students regularly face harassment at Becker High School, according to the staff member and Ella Rick, a junior who is active in the school’s GSA club.  

While the state’s legislature has successfully passed some protections for LGBTQ+ youth in schools, proponents of additional measures face virulent opposition from anti-LGBTQ+ groups whose influence has increasingly been felt in schools across the country amid a corresponding rise in legislation targeting the rights of LGBTQ+ students and their families. 

MNCPL is among the organizations currently advocating against Minnesotan Democrats’ proposed bill that would outlaw conversion therapy for minors and vulnerable adults.

Both Rick and the staff member at Becker High School said that following the MNCPL’s presentation to the School Board, participants in the protest felt targeted with veiled threats that left them fearing they would face retaliation from administrators and county officials.

An email Tuesday from Becker Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt instructs all recipients to collect and share, by the end of the month, electronic documents as well as “personal notes, post-it notes and handwritten notes” from February 1 to “the events on March 14, 2022.”

Statutorily, interested parties are permitted to file mandatory requests for documents from Minnesota’s public schools, and in this case it will apply to communications between staff and a breadth of different parties, from the media and advocacy groups to individuals and law enforcement.

LGBT students protest controversial presentation at Becker school board:

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Minnesota

Minnesota school board meeting with anti-LGBTQ+ hate group protested

Rand believes there isn’t “two sides” to the LGBTQ+ rights debate. “We’re talking about human rights,” he said

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Screenshot via KMSP Fox 9

BECKER, Mn. – LGBTQ+ students and their supporters packed a school board meeting in Becker, Minnesota, Monday to protest a speaker from a group widely seen as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group. 

The Becker School District Board signed off on a plan last week to allow the Minnesota Child Protection League (MCPL) – which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group – to present the “other side” of the LGBTQ+ rights debate. The MCPL has lobbied to prevent the passage of the Safe and Supportive Schools Act, which ultimately passed, and more recently has fought against Trans-inclusive school policies statewide. 

Before the start of the current academic year, statewide LGBTQ+ rights organization OutFront Minnesota presented to the board, addressing concerns that LGBTQ+ students had raised regarding equity, equality and inclusion within the district’s schools. The MCPL’s invitation followed outrage from some community members over the OutFront presentation. 

The MCPL’s presentation comes as a conversion therapy ban works its way through the statehouse, including a companion bill in the Minnesota Senate awaiting action.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that MCPL Board Chair Julie Quist spoke to the board and the large audience, made up of mostly pro-LGBTQ+ protestors, about books that encourage acceptance of Trans people, which she said violated the beliefs and norms of the community. Quist previously served as an aide to U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who once said the gay community “bullied the American people.”

Former Becker board members Betsy Armstrong and Chris Klippen also spoke at the meeting. According to the newspaper, Armstrong spoke about what she called the “worrisome” increase of Trans youth in the last decade. While she spoke, protestors interrupted her, questioning her statements or chanting, “Gay rights are human rights.”

Screenshot via ZOOM

“Use of a new name and preferred pronouns should be [optional] for those interacting” with LGBTQ+ people, Armstrong said, citing a Bible quote that says God created two sexes.

Joe Rand, a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) advisor at the high school, told the Blade the presentation was “hateful” and “very anti-Trans,” adding that “much of it didn’t have anything to do with a high school or school setting at all.”

“It was garbage,” he told his students, noting that “they knew that already.”

LGBTQ+ students at Becker High School are frequently dead named, according to Rand. “The community is very religious, and pretty conservative,” he said. “And there’s a lot of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric on social media as well.”

Rand also said that it seemed like there were some students who stood around to try “intimidate our queer students.”

Skyler Seiler, a Trans student at the school, told local Fox-affiliate KMSP that the meeting was “disgusting.”

“I can’t believe this, we are humans too,” Seiler said. “I don’t know why they’re treating us like we’re not. It is your job, as school board members, to make students feel safe and welcome.”

School Board Chair Mark Swanson addressed concerns over the speakers, reading a statement before the meeting, the Star Tribune reported.

“As a school board, we recognize that we are learners, just like the students we serve. Therefore, a critical part of our jobs as board members is to listen and engage,” he said. “We see that it is essential for us as individual board members and as a collective to engage with a variety of perspectives and voices to ensure a complete picture.”

According to the newspaper, public comment was not allowed at Monday’s meeting, but Swanson told attendees they could sign up to speak at the next regular meeting in April.

Rand believes there isn’t “two sides” to the LGBTQ+ rights debate. “We’re talking about human rights,” he said. 

He added that though the kids at the high school are “incredibly resilient,” the presentation Monday was “traumatizing for them.”

“Even though they’re rallying and cheering, they’re also being traumatized by this. So, it can be a lot,” Rand said.

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Minnesota

Minnesota school board clears anti-LGBTQ+ hate group presentation

Tensions and issues regarding the LGBTQ+ student population in the district’s schools has been a reoccurring situation

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Becker GSA students & allies at the 2021 Becker Freedom Days Parade (Courtesy of Dr. Heather Abrahamson)

BECKER, Mn. – The Becker School District Board signed off on a plan to allow the [Minnesota] Child Protection League, (MCPL), to give a presentation at a special board meeting on Monday, March 14. The MCPL, formed in 2013 and based in Anoka, Minnesota, is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group for its propaganda, lies, and misinformation it spreads about LGBTQ+ people.

The group along with the now defunct Minnesota Parents Action League, lobbied to prevent passage of the Safe and Supportive Schools Act, which ultimately passed, and more recently has fought to prevent trans-inclusive school policies statewide. The group is also adamantly opposed to legislation that a Minnesota House panel advanced earlier this month, banning the practise of conversion therapy in the state.

Under the bill, mental health professionals would be prohibited from providing conversion therapy to vulnerable adults and clients under age 18. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz last year signed an executive order aimed at banning conversion therapy and called on state lawmakers to pass legislation to make the ban permanent.

The MCPL’s timing for its presentation to the Becker School District Board comes as the conversion therapy ban legislation is working it way through the statehouse including a companion bill in the Minnesota Senate which is awaiting action.

Before the start of the current academic year, statewide LGBTQ+ rights organisation OutFront Minnesota, made a presentation to the Becker School District Board, addressing concerns that had been raised by the LGBTQ+ students regarding equity, equality and inclusion within the district’s schools.

The local newspaper in neighboring St. Cloud, the St. Cloud Times reported this week that tensions and issues regarding the LGBTQ+ student population in the district’s schools has been a reoccurring situation. In article published March 10, the Times noted:

Earlier in 2021, someone posted a rumor on a Becker community Facebook page that pride flags were going to replace U.S. flags in the school. The claim was false, said Becker Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt, but garnered “thousands” of comments, said GSA advisor, speech coach and theater director Joe Rand.

“But those comments primarily included hate speech, negative sentiment toward LGBTQ+ people,” Rand said. It was like “yelling fire in a crowded room,” he added, and raised tensions in the school.

At one point, a student posted anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments in response to the false pride flags social media claim. Other current and former students began posting screenshots of the post on their social media accounts in opposition to the sentiments. Someone reported the student to his prospective college, Becker High School social studies teacher and GSA advisor Dr. Heather Abrahamson said.

Becker Chief of Police Brent Baloun began contacting the students who were sharing the screenshots, advising the students to take them down “or risk civil and/or criminal charges,” according to a June ACLU of Minnesota letter addressed to school board members.

“To this end, the ACLU of Minnesota strongly encourages the Becker Police Department to stop abusing its authority as law enforcement to chill the First Amendment right to free speech by current and former Becker Public School students; specifically, the Chief of Police should immediately cease contacting these individuals to insist that they remove their private, constitutionally-protected social media posts,” ACLU of Minnesota Legal Director Teresa Nelson wrote in the letter. “The ACLU of Minnesota also urges Becker Public Schools to stop permitting Becker police to use school premises to interrogate students regarding private, constitutionally-protected speech,” she added.

Following the posts, a group of students began lining up their trucks on the edge of the school parking lot on Tuesdays displaying American flags, the Gadsden flag aka the Don’t Tread on Me flags favored by alt-right extremist groups and Donald Trump campaign flags, though they said it wasn’t related to what was happening on social media, Rand said. The school did eventually disallow the Trump and the Gadsden flags at school, Dr. Abrahamson. said.

KQ Quinn, Educational Equity Youth Coordinator for OutFront Minnesota noted that Minnesota’s Educational Equity gap is one of the worst in the nation for LGBTQ+ students. “We need to continue to work together so that every student can get what they need,” Quinn said.

OutFront spells out that defining Educational Equity means finding what every student needs to be successful – academically, socio-emotionally, and everything-in-between- and getting it for them.

The process is complex, dynamic, and on-going: owning flaws and biases, engaging in courageous conversations to challenge prejudice and discrimination, creating environments where students feel safe to share what they need, and breaking down any systems that are creating barriers. Students who feel valued, seen, and celebrated are the ones who will find success,” OutFront’s website states.

Becker School District Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt confirmed that someone with the Child Protection League would be able to present to the board on March 14, the Times reported. The paper went on to note that two community members attended the March 7 school board meeting and spoke during the public comment period, expressing an interest in the school board having a presentation in response to OutFront’s August presentation.

When a board member asked the rest of the board if there was any objection to the March 14 special meeting, no one opposed it.

Rand told the Blade Saturday in a phone call that there really isn’t two sides to this issue. The folks lobbying against LGBTQ+ rights cast the narrative that their rights are being violated- but students feel that it is they who are left out of those conversations to the point of being marginalized and bullied.

Anti-LGBTQ+ activist and a lawyer Betsy Armstrong has conflated LGBTQ+ equality rights with Critical Race Theory to the school board previously and is one of those who demanded that the anti-LGBTQ+ hate group be allowed to make their presentation Rand told the Blade.

Armstrong, who lives in Becker believes that the “progressive agenda” being adopted by Minnesota schools would teach students to define themselves by ethnicity and teach students that white people are guilty of systemic racism.

She has also been highly critical of the acceptance of GSA’s in the schools and is opposed to display of Pride flags to designate ‘safe spaces’ in certain classrooms in the district’s schools.

Rand said that the students are prepared for Monday’s presentation and will attend to ensure board members are aware and understand the real danger to LGBTQ+ students from such hateful messaging.

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