Elk River High School students joined a statewide walkout on April 19 in protest of racial injustice. Some shared examples of racism they'd endured in school. But when some of those same students tried to discuss racism in class, it sparked a social media backlash against their educator. Credit: Elsay Yoder | Sahan Journal

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In the early afternoon of Tuesday, April 20, many Minnesotans anxiously awaited the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd. But another group of people were training their attention on a Black educator in the Elk River schools. And they were growing very angry, very quickly.

“There is no place in school for this crap,” wrote one Facebook commenter. “And he should be removed.”

“Arrest this dude,” another posted.

“They’d catch hell from me if my child went to that school,” wrote another. “I hope he is fired.”

In another corner of the internet, 11-year-old Vivian Hustvedt started a petition. She had heard one of her favorite educators at Salk Middle School in Elk River might be in danger of losing his job, and she decided to take action.

“He is one of the kindest people you would ever meet,” wrote Vivian, a sixth grader in the northwest Minneapolis suburb. “I think he is getting some harsh replies because he isn’t white.”

How did this school district of 12,000 students find itself at the center of a social media firestorm? A video, secretly recorded by a student during a ninth-grade social studies class, went viral on Facebook.

The recording, as these comments suggest, conjured social media outrage from parents within the district and throughout the state. But here’s what really happened in class that day. 

LeRoyce Boldt, a social studies teacher at Elk River High School, invited Troy Johnson, a district equity specialist, to visit her classes on April 15 to address student questions about Minnesota protests to police violence. The school district employs four equity specialists to increase cultural competency, support student clubs, and improve academic achievement across racial lines. Johnson has worked as an equity specialist in Elk River schools for 14 years; he has an advanced degree in social work and a background in family therapy. He’s also one of the only staff members of color in Elk River High School.  

Visually, the recording doesn’t show much. The student’s phone, surreptitiously filming, remains pointed toward the classroom’s ceiling tiles.

And the audio doesn’t include the student question, which followed the police killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright: Why do some people loot after the police kill a person

Here’s what you do hear.

Johnson, who is Black, explains that Black people have been protesting police killings for decades to no avail. Looting, he explains, is a way to get attention–especially from people who own property, who are more likely to wield political power and are often white. He notes that looting following George Floyd’s murder succeeded in getting a reaction from the political establishment.

“That’s what the looting is doing for the African American community,” Johnson says. “We got to raise somebody’s awareness. We got to talk to somebody. Who do we tell? Who do we tell? We’ve been telling people, but there’s nothing being done.”

A parent uploaded a four-minute video clip of this classroom discussion to Facebook, on a group page for Independent School District 728. A user removed the original post, but other versions of the video resurfaced in other posts from parents—and also, a few days later, from Republican state legislator Jeremy Munson. 

The backlash was swift, both in Elk River and among Minnesota conservatives. 

Some parents interpreted Johnson’s words as an endorsement of looting, and demanded the district fire him. On his Facebook post, Munson labeled the video, “MN school justifies burning of buildings.” 

But other parents—and students—pushed back, and insisted the district should publicly support Johnson. To those community members, the online controversy underlines an everyday racism in Elk River schools that administrators have too long failed to take seriously. 

Like many suburbs, Elk River is diversifying: In the last 10 years, the percentage of students of color in the district has nearly doubled to 15 percent. But the town of 25,000 is still more than 90 percent white. It’s also politically conservative: 60 percent of 2020 voters cast ballots for Donald Trump.

We spoke to the classroom teacher and Elk River students to ask what actually happened that day in school, and how they felt about the backlash. Many students heard one thing in class that day; many parents who clicked on the recording later heard something different. And in between those two accounts lies a fault line that confronts educators—and especially Black educators—when they try to discuss race in the classroom. 

As Minnesota grapples with a racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, the competing interpretations of what happened in that Elk River classroom illustrate how difficult it can be just to start the conversation.

‘I took away a great different perspective. I haven’t thought of it like this.’

LeRoyce Boldt, who has been teaching social studies for 12 years, described that day’s lesson as a constructive discussion that helped students make sense of current events.

At the beginning of Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd, her ninth graders began asking questions about social justice and protesting. In an email to Sahan Journal, Boldt, who is white, described asking students to write down their questions in advance, and inviting Johnson to help address them in a “safe discussion.” 

Boldt noted that students are discussing these issues on social media and at home. “It is essential as educators to teach them how to listen, grow, and respond when in uncomfortable conversations,” she said. 

Those discussions are also important to show students ways to disagree without being hateful, she said. They help “to model that all people have value, and the only way we can bring change in our world is to discuss these issues.”

As the classroom discussion unfolded, it felt informative, Boldt said. “Students were courageous to ask questions that many adults don’t have the courage to ask,” she explained. “Students disagreed with one another respectfully. And while they felt uncomfortable in some moments, they still pressed into the experience.”

Sahan Journal didn’t get a chance to hear Johnson’s reflections from the classroom lesson, as he did not respond to Sahan Journal interview requests. (As an equity specialist, he doesn’t have tenure protection and can be dismissed by the district at will.)

But the four-minute clip a parent shared on Facebook reduced the thoughtful, nuanced conversation Boldt described to a single answer about a sensitive and inflammatory topic: looting.

That clip missed key context, Boldt said: Johnson encouraged all her students to share their perspectives, and he spoke in response to student-led questions. As she watched the social media commentary spin out of control, she felt sad, disappointed, and misrepresented.

“Social media does not always provide a productive, comprehensive way to discuss current events,” she said. “What was most disappointing to me about it spreading online is that I did not see adults modeling the behavior our students displayed and are expected to display.”

And indeed, for their part, the students seemed to have reflected carefully on the conversation. Boldt shared the takeaways they wrote down after class (without any student names or identifying information): 

  • “I took away a great different perspective. I haven’t thought of it like this.”
  • “I got a better understanding of an African American’s point of view.”
  • “BLM doesn’t mean ONLY Black lives matter, but rather spreads awareness for specifically Black lives.”
  • “There are many different perspectives from both sides.”
  • “BLM protests are to show a point that a life is lost and it keeps happening. Looting is to make a point, they don’t want to hurt anyone just make people see what’s happening.”
  • “I feel so inspired by this talk, and I now have a much better understanding on how a Black person would feel when getting pulled over.”
  • “I learned that police do matter.”
  • “I really enjoyed this conversation and it’s really important that we continue talking about important subjects like this.”

Sahan Journal asked school district leadership for an interview to discuss the classroom lesson. But in a statement, a spokesperson said that the district was unable to comment on the specific situation due to data privacy laws. The district representative also said the human resources department had begun an investigation of the matter and that “appropriate actions will be taken when the investigation concludes.”

“ISD 728 does not condone violence or illegal activity at any time and that we do work to provide safe spaces for students to discuss current events,” the district statement continued. “We believe it is important to provide safe spaces for our students to discuss events, consider various perspectives, and to learn together.”

The backlash

While students who were present in class that day offered thoughtful reflections on the classroom discussion, most people in Elk River—and across Minnesota—experienced the video very differently. One version, shared more than 100 times, stitched together the four-minute audio clip with a photo of Johnson’s face, his bio from the district website, and a link to the email addresses of all four of the Elk River district’s equity specialists.

How did that happen? This edited version came from Representative Jeremy Munson (R–Lake Crystal), a second-term Republican from southern Minnesota.

Munson, whose district outside Mankato sits more than 100 miles southwest of Elk River, said he heard about Johnson’s comments from concerned parents.

He told Sahan Journal that he edited the video to show Johnson’s face and bio. His intent in sharing the video, he said, was to encourage Minnesotans to engage with local government. 

“I believe in local control, which means empowering local school boards to set decisions for the school district instead of top-down mandates from St. Paul,” he wrote in an email to Sahan Journal. 

(Boldt noted that discussing current events with students falls under state academic standards. But this particular lesson was driven at, a very local level, by the questions of students in her classroom.)

Munson seemed no more satisfied with the district’s role in funding equity programs. “This video reflects a policy supported by the school board, and parents should see this example of equity policy and be encouraged to learn what their school district is doing,” Munson told Sahan Journal.

As a result of posting the video, he wrote, he hoped more parents would attend school board meetings to ask questions about the agenda of equity programs.

A handful of the people sharing the video urged their Facebook followers to get involved in their own school board and parent-teacher associations. But more Facebook users called for Johnson to be fired. “If you find this racist disgusting,” a user from Bloomington wrote, “burn down his job.”

Several commenters used Munson’s post to demand Johnson’s arrest. Some called him curse words. One suggested he should go to Africa. 

‘The fact that parents were trying to get him fired proves how they want to see us fail’

Jackson Pekula, a 15-year-old freshman in Boldt’s class, welcomed the conversation at school. It came days after a Brooklyn Center police officer killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright and days before Chauvin was found guilty of murder and manslaughter in Minneapolis. 

Closer to home in Elk River, a recent student Snapchat post had upset many of his classmates: It matched the Kenyan flag with a racial slur. Hateful language is nothing new in Elk River, according to Jackson.

“Our school has always been known for racial slurs, any type of slurs really,” he said. It’s not uncommon, Jackson added to hear the racist n-word, or the homophobic f-slur, five times a day in school. 

Elk River High School is also politically divided, he said: Liberals are labeled as weird or “snowflakes,” while Trump supporters are considered racist.

Jackson expressed frustration that parents on social media displayed such a strong reaction to his class conversation. He noted that many people used the word “uncomfortable” to describe how they–and their kids–felt discussing the killings of George Floyd and Daunte Wright, and what happened afterward. Sometimes it’s necessary to be uncomfortable, he said.

“I think our school needs to have conversations like that, or else we won’t change,” he said.

As adults raged on social media, Johnson’s students found ways to defend him.

Vivian Hustvedt, the sixth grader who started the petition, belongs to the multicultural group Johnson advises at Salk Middle School. (The Elk River district’s equity specialists each serve multiple schools.)

“I started the petition because I wanted to keep him in our school,” Vivian told Sahan Journal. The petition, labeled “Don’t let Mr. Johnson lose his job,” has amassed more than 15,000 signatures. “I was worried about him losing his job because people posted it on social media. And a lot of people did not like how he answered. But he was honest. And that’s something he honors with our group, too.”

Some students at Salk Middle School have talked to Johnson after making comments about Native Americans. He’s helped them to think about why their words might be harmful, she said. And in the multicultural group, kids learn how to stand up to racist comments instead of ignoring them.

Johnson has been a calming presence at her school, she said.

“He’s one of those people where if you have a lot on your mind, and you just stand for even five minutes or something and talk to him, you feel more centered and okay,” said Vivian.

She hopes the district takes a stand to openly support Johnson.

“I think the people who don’t want him there should realize that we need diverse people in our schools and in our community,” she said.

At Elk River High School, students of color were saddened, but not surprised, at the wider community response to the recording.

“I knew people in Elk River had a certain bias toward this stuff, that they don’t like talking about it,” said Olivia Mujica, a 17-year-old junior in the Social Justice Club, which Johnson advises. “But I didn’t think they could get that mean over one conversation.”

Olivia recently helped organize Elk River High School’s student walkout, part of a statewide organizing effort to protest racial injustice. Between 120 and 150 students participated, she said—nearly 10 percent of the school’s student body.

She’d first met Johnson when she and a friend met with school administrators to ask why the school didn’t honor Black History Month. She described him as “inspirational.”

“I know a lot of kids look up to him and he makes going to school worth it for them,” she said. “I think the biggest thing is he is the one person in the building that those students can look to and know he always has their back.”

Nevaeh Kirk, also a 17-year-old junior in the Social Justice Club, described Johnson as “someone I look up to.” He helped her through a racist incident she dealt with her freshman year.

She found the parents’ response “heartbreaking,” noting that Johnson is one of the only staff members of color at Elk River High School. “I just feel like they want to see Black people fail so much that they will go to extreme measures to make sure that happens.”

Interrupting the cycle

The conflict in Elk River appears to mark a transition in a growing town that’s becoming more diverse. Schools look to equity staff like Johnson to help students adapt to that change.

As demographics shift, more students speak up against racism in their schools, and vocal groups of parents organize for racial equity in the schools. But there’s no guarantee that constructive conversations about race and diversity will follow. That’s a perspective Jamal Samaha, a district alum from 2011, learned the hard way.

Samaha, now 28, grew up in Zimmerman–a more rural part of the district–and graduated from Elk River schools as one of the only students of color, he said. His parents, he explained, are Egyptian immigrants. At Elk River, he frequently heard racist slurs; after 9/11, kids called his parents terrorists. 

Now, Samaha lives in Chicago, where he works as a medical sales representative. Even from afar, he’s stayed involved in advocacy at the district–he’s one of the leaders of a parent and alumni group pushing for equity in Elk River schools. He’s disheartened that students still hear those same words in school. And now, he sees them directed toward Johnson.

He worries the vitriol online could lead to violence.

“‘Riot’ and ‘loot’–those are trigger words for people who are uneducated,” he said of the angry voices on Facebook. “And it triggered them to the point where they’re seeking blood.” 

Samaha wrote to the district’s superintendent, Daniel Bittman, telling him he feared for Johnson’s life. He asked him to take a public stand in support of Johnson.

But he’s concerned that the district may fire Johnson instead of addressing racism.

“If we keep thinking time will change things, it will not,” he said. In Elk River, Samaha has concluded, racism won’t go away on its own. 

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.