ELK RIVER, Mn – Education Minnesota (EdMN), the state teacher’s union, filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Becker Public School District, over a communications policy ratified this past May that, according to the complaint, amounts to a “gag order” designed to minimize press coverage of the homophobia and racism in the district’s schools and among members of its elected leadership.
In an interview Friday with The Los Angeles Blade, EdMN President Denise Specht said her union’s decision to file suit was not made lightly. “We don’t sue school districts very often,” she said.
“The fact that the teachers in this district felt they needed to file a lawsuit regarding this gag order or communications plan signals that they were at the end of their rope,” Specht said. Employees’ repeated attempts to relay to the board their concerns with the purpose and lawfulness of the policy were ignored, along with their pleas for it to be amended or withdrawn, leaving the union with no choice but to pursue litigation, Specht said.
The communications policy forbids employees from making “statements to the media, individuals, or entities outside the District relating to student or personnel matters” and stipulates that “internal communication must be positive.”
The overbroad restrictions constitute violations of the state’s Constitution, the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act, “and a host of other statutes intended to protect employee and citizen speech,” EdMN argued in its brief seeking an injunction.
Apart from the First Amendment implications, Specht highlighted the gag order’s potential to cause serious unintended consequences. She told the Blade that employees, who are required by law to report, for example, workplace health and safety violations (to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), or suspected child abuse or maltreatment (to law enforcement or county social service agencies), could be punished for doing so under the policy because it forbids them from communicating with outside entities.
Already, the gag order has had such a chilling effect that local union reps declined to issue statements outlining their objections for fear that doing so would violate the policy’s rules and therefore potentially lead to consequences from the board, Specht said
The board’s introduction of the communications policy this spring closely followed incidents where teachers spoke to the local press about the mistreatment and abuse of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students in the district, particularly those who were upset by the board’s decision in March to welcome a presentation from an extreme anti-LGBTQ+ hate group, the Minnesota Child Protection League (CPL).
Per the union’s lawsuit, the timing indicates the impetus behind the policy was to prevent more negative media attention by silencing teachers and employees who sought to defend, particularly, LGBTQ+ students whose educational environments and school board are rife with homophobia, transphobia, and bigotry.
“Our students deserve to learn in a safe and welcoming place, and if they can’t trust or depend on their teachers to speak up for them when they need it the most, what lessons are we teaching them?” Specht said.
As the union argued in the opening paragraph of its brief seeking injunction, “The Becker Public School District (the “District”) has an image problem. It created a forum for individuals who are strangers to the school community [the CPL] to characterize students’ sexual orientation and gender identity as a “contagion.” It has spurred concerned staff members and students to speak out publicly about the harm that homophobia and racism have caused to the learning environment…[and] has tried to impose restrictions on staff on their ability to speak as citizens and as members of the school community.”
In a statement given to The Blade by Becker Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt, the district disputes “the claims and assertions being made in those [EdMN] filings,” asserting that “the lawsuit misconstrues the purpose and effect of language in the School District’s plan,” and indicating it will “respond through the legal proceedings before the Court” as “the judicial system is the more appropriate forum in which to address these issues.”
Frustrations predate and extend well beyond the board’s communications policy
Specht said the flashpoint in March over the CPL’s presentation to the school board, which spurred protests by students, district school employees, and members of the community, led to a series of actions by which the board has improperly and unlawfully demonstrated its intent to “command and control” the district’s teachers and employees.
The message from elected leadership is, “Do what we want you to do, say what we want you to say,” Specht said. “Speaking statewide, I can tell you it’s policies like this [gag order] that are driving educators out of the profession. The lack of respect, lack of autonomy, and disregard for professionalism. Those are some of the reasons we’re hearing that are causing people to say, ‘I have had enough.’”
Specht cited, as an example of the board’s efforts to control and strong-arm the district’s employees, the communications policy’s detailed instructions governing the content and design of their email signatures. “We know what that’s about,” she said, “preventing teachers and staff from including their preferred pronouns.”
The board’s draft policy proposal 471 is also a big problem, Specht said.
If enacted, the measure would prohibit “political indoctrination or the teaching of inherently divisive concepts,” mandating that classrooms be free of “non-school materials favoring any particular group, political ideology, favored class or promoting controversial issues,” which applies to “non-United States flags, leaflets, brochures, buttons, badges, fliers, stickers, lanyards, petitions, posters, or artwork and underground newspapers.” Under the policy, staff are instructed to make sure “their own and their students’ apparel choices are not in violation” of these rules.
Just as the putatively neutral requirements for standardized email signatures were likely a pretext to prevent teachers from including their pronouns as a gesture of support for the trans community, it was clear to sources who previously spoke to The Blade that 471 was written to eliminate, from the district’s schools, discussion of or educational materials including LGBTQ+ themes or addressing racial justice, as well as free speech and expression that is supportive of the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities.
For Joe Rand, a former GSA faculty advisor and director of Becker High School’s theatrical productions, the board’s introduction this summer of the draft of 471 was a signal that leadership was committed to this course of action, unwilling to consider how these policies will harm vulnerable students, and uninterested in hearing feedback from concerned employees. He made the difficult decision to resign.
Minnesota’s chapter of the ACLU issued a letter last month to the board in which the group warned that 471, if enacted, would raise significant legal issues by abridging constitutional rights to free speech and expression.
Asked for comment on the union’s lawsuit over the communications policy, Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU of Minnesota, again reiterated the organization’s concerns with 471 and the troubling conclusions one might draw from the board’s decision to introduce such a policy.
“The Becker Public Schools District seems to be motivated by silencing dissent, as evidenced by proposed policy 471,” she wrote in an emailed statement Friday. “Public employees have a right to speak out on matters of public concern when they are speaking in their personal capacity, and we expect the district to respect that right.”
For Specht, it was another sign the school board is unconcerned with how their policies are received by the district’s teachers and employees. “I was in attendance in the board meeting in August for their second discussion of 471,” she said, “and it was very clear the majority of the people there for public comment were in opposition to that policy.”
Policy 471, considered together with the gag order and other moves by the board following the dustup over their meeting in March, is part of a clear pattern, Specht said. With a heavy hand, leadership is dictating what is being taught and how, stifling and silencing dissent from educators along the way, she said.
“There’s quite the sequencing of policies here, and I do believe they’re all connected.”
For now, the board has decided to table policy 471 pending a review by a subcommittee, in consultation with an attorney, Specht said.
Specht said she is hopeful that the union’s lawsuit, however long it may take to resolve, will lead to more just and equitable outcomes for employees and students in Becker public schools.
Minneapolis felon charged in Gay Bar brandishing incident
According to U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger, Conell Walter Harris, 29 has been charged with felony illegal possession of a firearm
MINNEAPOLIS – A Minneapolis resident is facing federal charges for illegal possession of a firearm during a criminal brandishing, uttering threats and homophobic slurs at a popular LGBTQ+ bar in the downtown area of the city.
According to U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger, Conell Walter Harris, 29 has been charged with felony illegal possession of a firearm.
In court documents filed in Hennepin County, on November 28, 2022, Minneapolis Police officers responded to a call that a person at 19 Bar, located near downtown Minneapolis, had pulled out a gun after being asked to leave.
When officers arrived, several people pointed at a man, who was later identified as Conell Walter Harris, 29. Harris resisted arrest and tried to reach into the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt. Officers recovered a stolen .45 caliber Glock model 30 pistol from Harris’ pocket. Officers spoke to bar employees and customers and learned that Harris had become upset after an employee asked to see his identification, which Harris refused to show.
The employee then asked Harris to leave the bar. Harris became combative and pulled out a pistol. An employee attempted to deescalate the situation but Harris became more aggressive and made multiple threatening statements. Harris then left for a short time but returned to the bar before law enforcement arrived.
Minneapolis NBC affiliate KARE 11 reported:
The complaint and affidavit outline the events that allegedly took place at Minneapolis’ 19 Bar the night of Nov. 28, claiming officers first responded to the bar around 11 p.m. on reports of a person with a gun.
When officers arrived, prosecutors say, bar patrons identified Harris. The complaint says Harris “resisted arrest and kept reaching into his hoodie pocket,” leading police to recover a .45-caliber Glock semi-automatic handgun.
Court documents allege that based on eyewitness accounts, police were informed that Harris was “acting strangely” when he entered the bar and became upset when an employee asked to see his ID. A 19 Bar bartender then asked Harris to leave, according to the complaint, and Harris refused, telling the bartender, “I ain’t going nowhere,” while pulling out the firearm.
Prosecutors say Harris then began yelling profanities and slurs at the bartender before leaving for a short time and then returning.
When Harris later reentered the bar, court documents allege he began playing pool until officers arrived.
According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Harris is charged in a criminal complaint with felon in possession of a firearm. He made his initial appearance today in U.S. District Court before Magistrate Judge Tony N. Leung. Harris was ordered to remain in custody pending a formal detention hearing scheduled for December 5, 2022.
This case is the result of an investigation conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the Minneapolis Police Department.
‘Nonpartisan’ Minnesota group launches ‘parental rights’ effort
The group rallied in front of the Minnesota state capitol caring signs with crossed out images of Pride flags and “CRT”
MINNEAPOLIS – A new group in Minnesota, the Minnesota Parents Alliance, claiming to be nonpartisan has launched an effort to gain “parental rights” on state school boards, partnering with anti-LGBTQ organizations and endorsing candidates who denounce Pride flags and critical race theory.
The group, which was launched in February, says it’s a “statewide, non-partisan, parent-focused organization” that vows to ensure “every parent who wants to get involved in their child’s education has every resource they need to do so successfully.” According to the group’s website, its goal is to “[educate] and [empower] Minnesota parents to effectively engage in their school community as strong advocates for academic achievement, equality, and parental rights.”
“The parent movement is alive and well in Minnesota,” the Minnesota Parents Alliance tweeted ahead of its launch in February. “We’ve got work to do in ’22.”
However, the Minnesota Parents Alliance lists several Conservative groups under its “helpful organizations” tab, including the Child Protection League – which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an anti-LGBTQ hate group. The Child Protection League generated extensive media coverage earlier this year after the Becker School District Board signed off on a plan to allow the organization to present the “other side” of the LGBTQ rights debate.
In August, according to MPR News, supporters of the group rallied in front of the Minnesota state capitol, some caring signs with crossed out images of Pride flags and “CRT” – referring to critical race theory, a graduate-level academic academic framework centering on the idea of systemic racism in the nation’s institutions. Critical race theory has become a buzzword in Conservative circles, encompassing any teaching of race and American history in schools.
Once a political after-thought, school boards in recent years have become a battleground over critical race theory, transgender inclusion and LGBTQ-themed books considered to be “inappropriate,” or even “pornographic.”
The organization has backed over 100 candidates for Minnesota school board in its “voter guide,” which states that the group “identifies and endorses school board candidates across the state who are aligned with our mission of prioritizing academic achievement, equality and parental rights in their school district.”
The Los Angeles Blade reviewed the list of candidates, finding a lack of racial diversity. According to headshots on the group’s website – though several candidates are without identifying photos – the group has largely backed white candidates. Over one-fifth of the state’s population is represented by racial or ethnic minority groups, according to the latest U.S. Census data.
The Minnesota Parents Alliance has not responded to multiple interview requests from the Blade.
At the Aug. 4 rally, the group’s founder, Cristine Trooien, said her organization has been contacted by Democratic voters wanting to partner with the group. “[They say], ‘I am a left-leaning voter, I have always voted for Democratic candidates and what is going on in our schools right now is just unacceptable,’” she said, per MPR News.
“I think we saw last year a lot of inflammatory things happening at school board meetings and that’s not getting us anywhere,” Trooien said. “Dedicated school board members? That’s going to get us somewhere.”
Becker, MN school board drops “gag order” following lawsuit
Other draft policy targeted by ACLU-Minnesota “under legal review,” Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt told The Blade
BECKER, Mn – Days after the state teacher’s union, Education Minnesota, filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the Becker Public School District’s restrictive communication policy for employees, the board has moved to rescind it.
Critics previously told The Los Angeles Blade the overbroad policy was written as a pretext to shield the district from more negative press attention, following incidents where employees spoke publicly about their concerns with anti-LGBTQ+ policies and practices at Becker schools and among elected leadership.
All six board members voted to withdraw the communication plan – which was adopted on May 2 – during a meeting last night, having previously discussed the matter in a closed-door session.
Before taking the vote, Board Chair Mark Swanson lamented that, “We’re disappointed we’ve had to go through this adversarial process in working through that communication plan. We’re also disappointed – as we said in the district’s statement to the media – that the lawsuit misconstrues the purpose and effect of the district’s plan as well as the goals and objectives that were stated on May 2.”
According to the union’s lawsuit, the policy, which forbids employees from making “statements to the media, individuals, or entities outside the District relating to student or personnel matters,” violated the state’s Constitution, the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act, “and a host of other statutes intended to protect employee and citizen speech.”
On the board’s decision last night, a district employee and member of the Becker community told The Los Angeles Blade, “I am thankful for this one step towards equality, justice, and human rights,” adding that the board had “ample time” to revise the policy and its withdrawal “needed to happen.”
“The communication plan, even though the district claimed as misunderstood, was intended to chill the speech of a select group,” they said. “Its words were vague and left the interpretation of violating this plan to a select few.”
The employee pointed to a conflict that played out last year over a false claim on a Facebook community forum that Becker classrooms were replacing American flags with Pride flags:
“Hundreds of people responded to that post with hateful comments and lies directed at LGBTQ students, their allies, and their teachers. When asked to take that post down (as it was a lie) the administrator of the Community Forum claimed, ‘free speech. On the flip side, when LGBTQ students, teachers, and allies were reporting true things on that same forum, their comments were deleted, and many individuals were removed from the forum. It seems that in this case, and in the case of the district’s communication plan, free speech is not universal, as it depends on who is speaking the words.”
As The Blade reported, when students shared screen shots on social media of the Facebook post and the homophobic and transphobic comments, Becker’s chief of police demanded they delete them, prompting a warning to the Department from the ACLU of Minnesota (ACLU-MN).
Minnesota’s ACLU chapter also issued a letter to the Becker school district on July 30 over its proposed Policy 471, which “raises serious legal and public policy concerns” and “would significantly interfere with the First Amendment rights of students,” according to the letter.
The policy, a draft of which was first introduced earlier this summer, would prohibit “political indoctrination or the teaching of inherently divisive concepts,” mandating that classrooms be free of “non-school materials favoring any particular group, political ideology, favored class or promoting controversial issues,” which applies to “non-United States flags, leaflets, brochures, buttons, badges, fliers, stickers, lanyards, petitions, posters, or artwork and underground newspapers,” while staff are instructed to make sure “their own and their students’ apparel choices are not in violation of this policy.”
Shortly after 471 was introduced this summer, concerned members of the community and school district told The Blade they expect the policy, if ratified, would be used to prohibit pro-LGBTQ+ forms of free expression, like pride pins worn on students’ clothing, and to discourage classroom instruction on topics like America’s record on race.
Within the same week that it was served with the union’s lawsuit over the communication policy, the board opted to table 471. Asked for an update, Becker Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt told The Blade the matter is still “awaiting legal review per the board’s recent vote.”
ACLU: Becker, MN school board policy ‘raises serious legal concerns’
Becker School Board Director Aaron Jurek did not return a call requesting comment. Nor did any of the other board members respond
BECKER, Mn. – As The Los Angeles Blade reported, a policy unveiled earlier this month by the school board in Becker, Minnesota, about an hour northwest of Minneapolis, caused a faculty member to resign amid widespread concerns it will be weaponized to suppress and penalize speech and expression about racial justice and LGBTQ+ themes.
On Friday, the ACLU of Minnesota shared with The Blade a copy of a letter in which the organization’s Legal Director Teresa Nelson urged the board and Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt to reject the policy, citing “serious legal and public policy concerns,” specifically that it “would significantly interfere with the First Amendment rights of students.”
Becker School Board Director Aaron Jurek did not return a call requesting comment. Nor did any of the board members return an email requesting comment.
“Our country needs to acknowledge and reckon with its history of systemic racism, misogyny, and discrimination against LGBTQ people — this includes being able to teach and talk about these concepts in our schools,” the letter reads, in part. “And chilling conversations about race — and gender and sexuality — in schools risks maintaining or creating education environments that are unwelcoming to students of color, women and girls, and LGBTQ+ students.”
Per the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, the ACLU’s letter also requests, from Schmidt, “copies of any and all data related to the drafting and consideration of proposed
Becker School Board Policy 471.”
The school board’s procedures stipulate that new policies must be read through twice and opened for public comment during their meetings, but the board did not allow for public comment during the first discussion of Policy 471 on July 11. It could be approved on Monday, August 1 after the “second reading.”
The policy was broadly construed and ostensibly neutral in barring speech and expression involving matters that are “controversial” or “political,” but sources told The Blade they fully expect enforcement will be selective, consistent with the board’s campaign of intimidation against a small group of LGBTQ+ students and handful of supportive staff members in their high school.
As written, 471 would prohibit “political indoctrination or the teaching of inherently divisive concepts,” mandating that classrooms be free of “non-school materials favoring any particular group, political ideology, favored class or promoting controversial issues,” which applies to “non-United States flags, leaflets, brochures, buttons, badges, fliers, stickers, lanyards, petitions, posters, or artwork and underground newspapers,” while staff are instructed to make sure “their own and their students’ apparel choices are not in violation of this policy.”
Nelson wrote, in the ACLU’s letter:
“While schools have a limited ability to curb some student speech within the schoolhouse walls, school officials may only regulate student speech and expression that is reasonably likely to “materially and substantially disrupt” the school environment. Id. at 513. Proposed Policy 471 would regulate constitutionally protected student speech (including student apparel and accessories, buttons, stickers, literature or other means of student expression) that does not rise to the level of being materially and substantially disruptive.”
The letter also calls the policy “overbroad” and “vague,” imposing unclear rules about what speech is permissible.
Read the letter here:
New Minnesota school board’s LGBTQ+ policies forces out GSA advisor
ACLU & Southern Poverty Law Center lawyers noted the actions by officials potentially violated constitutional & workplace protections
BECKER, Mn. – When members of the board of the Becker public school district introduced the draft of a new policy statement during their meeting last week, a group of LGBTQ+ students and a handful of supportive staff members in their Minnesota high school once again found targets drawn on their backs.
The move, which further escalated a well-publicized conflict that has been brewing for months over the board’s treatment of LGBTQ+ issues, led a staff member to resign while validating concerns that those who have spoken out against elected leadership about these matters would face retaliation.
The broadly written policy prohibits “political indoctrination or the teaching of inherently divisive concepts,” mandating that classrooms be free of “non-school materials favoring any particular group, political ideology, favored class or promoting controversial issues,” which applies to “non-United States flags, leaflets, brochures, buttons, badges, fliers, stickers, lanyards, petitions, posters, or artwork and underground newspapers,” while staff are instructed to make sure “their own and their students’ apparel choices are not in violation of this policy.”
Students, staff, and employees must read and sign the document, adherence to which will be monitored with weekly classroom inspections and violators subject to disciplinary action. The policy might be approved in a forthcoming board meeting in August, potentially going into effect as early as the coming school year.
Sources told The Los Angeles Blade they expect the non-US flags hung in foreign language classrooms will probably be safe, as will buttons or jerseys emblazoned with the logos of Minnesota based professional sports teams. In the likely event that the policy is adopted, its enforcement will almost certainly be selective, they said, for the purpose of minimizing or eliminating from the district’s schools anything that touches on, for instance, LGBTQ+ themes or issues of racial justice.
When news of the policy broke during the board’s meeting on July 11, it was the last straw for Joe Rand, an openly gay GSA faculty advisor at Becker who, upon tendering his resignation Monday, told The Los Angeles Blade, “The writing was on the wall.”
Rand said it had become even clearer that leadership is committed to making life as difficult as possible for the high school’s already marginalized LGBTQ+ students. Their appeals for the board to consider how their policies and practices could be made more inclusive to foster a safer learning environment had, time and again, fallen on deaf ears, or in some cases led to threats of retaliation against the students and staff members who spoke out.
News of the board’s new policy did little to alleviate their feelings of hopeless or assuage fears about what may come next as officials seem dedicated to ensuring schools in the district tacitly ignore or deny the existence of LGBTQ+ people, along with America’s past and present struggles with racism.
In this respect, Becker is not unique. As The New York Times has chronicled, similar policies are cropping up in school districts across the country, as school board meetings have become battlegrounds for heated political debates over matters from critical race theory to mask mandates to the inclusion of library books with pro-LGBTQ+ themes.
Becker, however, which is located about 50 miles northwest of Minneapolis, in the congressional district formerly represented by anti-LGBTQ+ Tea Party Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, is perhaps distinguished by the extent to which fights over LGBTQ+ issues have roiled the school district and community at large.
As was the case with respect to past articles about these incidents that were published by The Blade, the board did not respond to multiple requests for interviews, comments, or statements for this article. During at least one meeting, recordings of which are publicly available, board members raised objections to The Blade’s coverage, which they called “one-sided.”
School board’s moves seem designed to mitigate evidence of its pattern and practice of retaliation
Tensions first came to a head in March when Becker’s school board, over objections raised by members of the GSA club, voted to allow a presentation during their March 14 meeting by the virulently anti-LGBTQ+ Minnesota Child Protection League (CPL). Protests during the group’s presentation led to a series of incidents in which members of the board tried to retaliate against participants and uncover evidence that some LGBTQ+ friendly staff members may have encouraged the students to demonstrate.
Months later, Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt demanded staff and employees turn over a trove of documents including handwritten memos and post-it notes. Then came a directive to not to engage with members of the press and instead direct media inquiries to the superintendent’s office.
Some employees became regular targets of veiled threats of disciplinary action, including in some cases where access to email was cut off pending investigations into staff members’ conduct that was completely innocuous and above-board. LGBTQ+ students feared the backlash would lead to policies prohibiting the “safe space” signs and Pride themed displays that once offered a rare respite from the discrimination and marginalization they encountered at school every day.
These concerns, of course, proved entirely warranted when the board rolled out the draft of its new policy this summer, cementing Rand’s decision to sever ties with Becker. The story of his resignation is more complicated, however, beginning with the administration’s objection to his involvement in an argument on social media.
In response to a comment under a Facebook post that read “we should start a protest for straight white males,” Rand wrote a quippy reply: “There is a group for straight white male pride…it’s called the KKK.” The exchange happened months ago, so Rand was surprised to learn he would be discussing the matter with Schmidt and an HR director in a meeting on June 7, and even more surprised when he was given the option to either resign within two weeks or be terminated.
At the time, Rand was unaware his Facebook exchange was with a student (who was not, to Rand’s knowledge, ever disciplined for the part he played in the online kerfuffle). Regardless, and especially given his spotless disciplinary record and the positive reception earned by the spring play and fall musical he directed, Rand believed the incident hardly warranted the treatment he received and was merely a pretext used to terminate him.
An employment attorney agreed, advising Rand there might be cause of action for a lawsuit on the grounds that his firing constituted unlawful retaliation. Rand suspects Schmidt might have received legal counsel during the same time, as the superintendent subsequently reversed course and notified Rand he would not be terminated but rather handed a disciplinary letter.
Rand and other sources who have been in touch with legal actors were advised the scepter of a possible lawsuit will likely require “a bad act” – such as a direct, written reprimand, a disciplinary letter in a personnel file, or a termination notice that presents clear evidence of retaliation or discrimination. Less likely but still within the realm of possibility is a potential case that would argue the school board or other officials acted in violation of students’ and staff’s First Amendment rights, some of the sources said.
Attorneys with the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center previously told The Blade it seems some of the moves by officials in the Becker school district potentially violated constitutional and workplace protections, but the facts and circumstances of each allegation must be considered individually with more weight given to policies and practices that can be easily documented.
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
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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