EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. – East Grand Forks High School teacher Bryan Perkins is ready to move on from the controversy surrounding a disciplinary suspension that was the source of student protests online and at his school Wednesday.
Two weeks after allegedly sending an email that expressed concerns about the lack of attendance by some Somali students who have English as a second language (ESL), Perkins has been reinstated by the district after being put on administrative leave.
The suspension triggered support for Perkins and a student protest Wednesday near the school. The school's administration announced Wednesday Perkins would be back in the classroom today.
"I think the School District realizes my intent was to open dialogue," Perkins said Wednesday afternoon.
The suspension came after an email titled "Thinking out loud," which included his name and contact information at the school, began circulating on social media. The email cited the poor attendance and the difficulty of teaching Somali ESL students.
Perkins said he was unaware the email had been publicized.
"I'm just happy to have it resolved," he said.
The email details ESL students' poor attendance and lack of English, which, according to the email, causes disruptions in the classroom. The email estimated 30 percent of Somali students have "very bad attendance."
Because of this, the email said teachers "must physically stop to re-teach ... most of what (ESL students) missed because they are not capable of reading and interpreting assignments for themselves. And, in many cases, this needs to be done immediately at the expense of the other 25 students in the room."
The author of the email agrees with "the district's effort to immerse these students" in English-language classes, but "the problem I see is a lack of commitment in many students' attendance and a lack of accountability in those same students' appreciation for what is required of them."
At the end, the email suggests possible solutions to help the learning environment for ESL students.
"So, I am asking at what point of falling behind ... are these kids better off in an ESL room all day versus half-day immersion?" the email asks. "And at what point are the rights of our other students being taken advantage of?
"It seems that my ESL students of all nationality are doing 'OK' if their attendance is good."
Superintendent David Pace said Monday that Perkins was placed on paid administrative leave and was investigating the matter. He declined to comment on the suspension or the nature of the investigation.
An open records request filed earlier this week seeking information regarding Perkins' suspension had not been fulfilled by the district as of Wednesday.
Tami Schumacher, the president of the teachers association and a teacher at New Heights Elementary School, said she doesn't know all of the details surrounding Perkins' suspension but that everything has been handled. The union does not plan to file a grievance, she added.
"I hope we can move on," she said. "It's resolved, and he's going to be back in the classroom, so let's move on. We're hoping the best for Bryan. I think he belongs in the classroom, and I'm glad he'll be back there tomorrow."
Perkins has been a teacher in the East Grand Forks community since 1994, according to the school's website. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from the University of North Dakota and a master's degree from the University of St. Thomas. He has taught economics and U.S. history in East Grand Forks.
About 50 East Grand Forks Senior High School students protested the teacher's suspension Wednesday in front of the school in support of Perkins.
Senior Jordan Young led the crowd, carrying a wooden sign that said "Free Perkins," while others carried cardboard and paper signs. At times, the students resorted to chanting phrases such as "We want Perkins." Motorists drove by honking horns in support.
East Grand Forks police watched the protest, at one time warning students to not protest on school property as they marched into the school's north parking lot.
Principal Brian Loer declined to comment on the email or Perkins' suspension while watching the protest. He added the students protesting "will suffer consequences" because they were not attending class.
Young said the students knew they would face detention and even suspension from school if they skipped class to protest. But some of the students protesting said they felt it was something that had to be done.
"He's my favorite teacher," senior Gunnar Welsh said.
Wednesday afternoon's protest came after students staged a similar demonstration at a Tuesday night volleyball game by holding up "We want Perkins" signs and chanting his name.
Many at Wednesday's rally had stickers on their clothing that read "#FreePerkins."
Senior Jamila Aden, one of the protesters, said she was 7 years old when she had to learn English as a second language. She said Perkins' email was reasonable and inspirational, not racist.
"For him to speak out his mind, it actually shows us that we can do it at the same time," Aden said. "If he gets suspended for speaking his mind and for the freedom of speech, then we are all going to get suspended for that."
When told that Perkins would return to school, Aden and other students said the teacher should have never been suspended in the first place.
"We feel like it is a freedom of speech thing and that it never should have happened," Young said. "We are just making our point."
Steve Wagner, April Baumgarten and Becky Jacobs contributed to this report.