ROCHESTER, Minn. — Tensions ran high Tuesday night, July 13, as a boisterous crowd attended the Rochester School Board meeting to raise concerns about "government speech," critical race theory, and the mandatory use of masks throughout the district.
None of those topics were on the agenda, except for a resolution that would update the mask policy. But the concerns brought forth reflected national conversations about racial awareness and free speech in the educational system.
Before the main business of the meeting, Brenda Hiniker expressed concerns about critical race theory. She said it's another form of discrimination.
"Critical race theory is very misleading," she said. "It talks about equity instead of equality. Equality is defined and supported by the Declaration of Independence, defended in the Civil War, supported in the 14th and 15th amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ... CRT creates reverse discrimination against the white population."
One of the most vocal members from the crowd before he had a chance at the podium himself pic.twitter.com/gFEFPY26h3— Jordan Shearer (@Jmanassa) July 13, 2021
Hiniker also criticized the board for its April 27 decision regarding "government speech." At that time, the board passed a resolution designating several statements, such as "Black Lives Matter" and "Stop Asian Hate," as government-protected speech.
The resolution read, in part: "We believe in the importance of sharing a general message of acceptance and inclusion of historically underserved/marginalized individuals, which is consistent with the District’s legal obligation to provide a workplace and educational environment that is free from discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, and other legally protected classes."
Wes Lund came to the podium with a number of Dr. Seuss books, in an apparent reference to the decision by the business that preserves the author's legacy to stop publishing six titles because of racist and insensitive imagery.
Lund spoke past the allotted time about what he described as a hostile environment for anyone who doesn't subscribe to a particular set of beliefs.
"I look across our community, across this room, and I see a tremendous polarization," he said. "Students and teachers, parents and community members are afraid to voice their true opinions in our schools for fear of docked grades, threats to job security, and retaliation against their students and businesses. A singular social political narrative is being pushed, and anyone who dares to question it or speak against it is being attacked and demonized."
He also mocked the hiring of the district's interim superintendent, Kent Pekel.
"Does everyone in the room realize that we have some 'deep state' characters right here in the room?" Lund asked the crowd, referring to Pekel's work with the Central Intelligence Agency earlier in his career. "I don't think everyone's aware of that, because when you hired this guy, you did it over Zoom meeting. You should have had the public vet this character to find out who exactly he is."
Board Chairwoman Jean Marvin banged her gavel in protest against Julie Kisgen-Reed, who came forward after the public comment period was closed. Kisgen-Reed spoke passionately against mask usage, though much of her initial comments were hard to hear as the commotion in the room rose.
The crowd didn't stop there.
When Marvin introduced the meeting, someone in the crowd suggested the board start with the Pledge of Allegiance. The crowd of at least 50 then recited the pledge themselves, followed by a round of applause.
As the crowd began to leave the room at the end of the meeting, someone suggested they say the Lord's Prayer. Many of them did, some with their arms raised in the air.
Neither Pekel nor the board responded to audience members during the meeting, but they provided comments afterward.
Pekel and Marvin said many of the implications expressed were incorrect. For example, both clarified that Rochester Public Schools does not teach critical race theory.
"This kind of misinformation is really disheartening," Marvin said.