On April 19, about 150 Elk River High School students walked out of class as part of a statewide action against racial injustice. Many parents, who had previously criticized a classroom discussion of looting as an endorsement of violence, found the peaceful protest at school inappropriate, too. Credit: Elsay Yoder | Sahan Journal

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No one carried protest signs or chanted into megaphones Monday night at the offices of Independent School District 728 in Elk River. From the outside, it looked like any other modern office building—a boxy brick facade dotted with spacious windows—though with a moderately full parking lot. 

But inside, nearly 200 people had gathered. Some came with their children to receive certificates of student leadership. Some, perhaps, came for the budget discussion. But most came to express their views about how the district of 12,000 students teaches racial equity.

In mid-April, a recording went viral of Troy Johnson, a Black district equity specialist, explaining why people might loot after police kill someone. He explained that decades of protest have led to little change, and looting can catch the attention of people in power. And the community responses that followed showed sharp divides in Elk River, a growing central Minnesota town of 25,000 some 30 miles northwest of Minneapolis. The controversy spread quickly on Facebook, with commenters calling for the equity specialist’s firing. In response, a middle school student started a petition to support her educator, garnering more than 15,000 signatures.

While many students defended their educator, some parents questioned the appropriateness of the conversation, and why the district employs equity specialists at all. The district issued a statement nodding to both sides: while it encourages discussion of current events, a spokesperson said, it does not condone violence in any form. District officials declined to comment on the specific situation citing data privacy laws. But Johnson, a district employee for 14 years, does not have tenure protection and can be dismissed at will. 

On Monday, those social media divides spilled into the school board meeting, where, according to typical protocol, the board allocated 20 minutes for public comment. Each speaker had three minutes, carefully timed and displayed on a projector screen.

About 75 people crowded into the board room, where the words “Educate, Inspire, & Empower” were emblazoned on the board platform. Still others filled an adjacent overflow area and watched on a screen. The board chair announced the meeting would begin with the Pledge of Allegiance. “Good,” one woman commented.

As board chair Holly Thompson read the district’s core values, they seemed to carry extra weight in the boardroom’s charged atmosphere.

“All people have value,” she read. “Valuing and respecting differences strengthens the individual and the community.” And, “Change is an opportunity for growth.”

Andrea Cuellar, a Mexican American mother of an Elk River High School senior, spoke first, stepping up to the lectern. 

“Real equity is actually teaching Johnny how to read, write, how to do math, how to think, not what to think,” she said. “Our children’s minds are being hijacked by the woke mob, and ISD 728 school board, I want to know why.”

Cuellar continued to state that “so-called equity specialists” were hired to “pimp out and peddle the woke religion and ideology.” What happened, she wanted to know, to the separation of church and state?

Many in the crowd applauded and cheered as she concluded her remarks and returned to the overflow room.

‘I went to Elk River schools since third grade. Never felt safe.’

While the comments over looting drove the controversy on social media, during the meeting parents made clear that their concerns weren’t limited to property damage. Several white mothers expressed concern over a peaceful student walkout for racial justice, part of a statewide day of action April 19 following the police killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center. 

At Elk River High School, the students in the Social Justice Club, which Johnson advises, organized the walkout. Photos of the event show about 150 masked students, some carrying signs saying “A badge is not a license to kill” and wearing T-shirts reading “Black Lives Matter.” Parents questioned the purpose of the Social Justice Club, and complained that their children faced bullying if they didn’t participate in the walkout.

“The condoning of violence by this adult has surely been an example that motivated some children to use the same tactics by intimidating other students,” one white mom said.

Morris Dennis, a Black district alumnus from 2014, recalled being one of two Black kids in his class, seeing Confederate flags, and hearing racial slurs in the lunchroom.

The multicultural club was a haven for him, he said. If not for that group, he said, “I probably would have never made it through Elk River High School.”

Dennis seemed frustrated with the parents expressing discomfort with difficult discussions in schools.

“They talk about not feeling safe?” he continued. “I went to Elk River schools since third grade. Never felt safe.”

‘Your students have been mature. Your staff has been straightforward.’

It was a cool spring night, but the mood felt heated as the comment period neared its end. 

Then Paula Benfer, a septuagenarian former educator and Elk River resident, spoke up. “Obviously, I’m a senior,” she observed, to some laughter. She pointed to the board’s mission statements that value equity and being proactive rather than reactive in addressing current events.

“I think you should muffle the voices on social media and follow your policy,” she said. “From what I understand, your students have been mature. Your staff has been straightforward and encouraged the students to be independent lifelong learners.”

No students testified during the public comment period. But afterward, they shared their discontent with Sahan Journal.

Students in Elk River High School’s Social Justice Club felt frustrated that parents reacted so strongly to the peaceful walkout—and to their club’s existence.

Kalee Dahlvang, 15, said she’d seen parents writing on Facebook that kids were scared because they felt bad for being white. Those assertions aren’t fair to the students facing racism daily at school, she said. 

As for the accusations of bullying for not walking out of class?

“There was a very small minority of kids who are not in the Social Justice Club who went to the walkout who assumed if you didn’t go you’re racist,” explained 14-year-old Ronan Mullins. “That is none of us.” 

The teenagers said they’d heard maskless adults whispering mockingly about the Social Justice Club during the school board meeting–not the sort of behavior they expected from adults.

Eleven-year-old Vivian Hustvedt, who started the petition in support of Johnson, rolled her eyes in response to the angry testimony. 

She hopes that Johnson will keep his job. But she thinks the administration will cave to the angry parents. “But it was nice seeing him at school today,” she added. “Because it did give some hope.”

‘Their purpose isn’t to create equity. It isn’t to create racial unity. It’s to create resentment.’

Cuellar, the first attendee to speak, told Sahan Journal that equity specialists are not needed because schools already must identify individual children who are falling through the cracks.

“Their purpose isn’t to create equity. It isn’t to create racial unity. It’s to create resentment,” she said.

She grew up in a segregated Texas border town where there were separate swimming pools for white people and brown people, she said. But her parents never taught her to hate white people or to identify as a victim.

“My mind, if it’s focused on that, then I’m not focused on what I need to work on inside and what I need to develop as a human being,” she said. “So that should be the focus: individuality.”

If she had been in the classroom that day, Cuellar said, she would have told students looting happens when people haven’t been taught personal responsibility. She’d previously started an afterschool program in Minneapolis, where students interviewed local political leaders and business owners—including stores they used to steal from, she said.

“We gave them a voice and hope,” Cuellar said. “You can do more. You are not a victim.”

But that need for a voice can be hijacked by “the evil cabal that is the equity- sustainability-climate-change whoremongers,” she said, who “come into our schools and capitalize on the vulnerability of our youth wanting a sense of meaning and significance.”

People who came to the board meeting hoping for a decision or a sense of closure may have left disappointed. The school board discusses and resolves personnel matters privately. But careful observers may have noticed a list of staff terminations and resignations presented for board approval later in the meeting. So far, Troy Johnson’s name has not appeared on the list.

And the conversation he started hasn’t fizzled out, either. Many conservative parents pronounced on Facebook that they didn’t want to discuss sensitive topics like race or protests in school. But in a sense, their vocal presence at the school board meeting suggested a realization that this year, the topic could not be ignored.

Decrying a peaceful student protest as divisive, one parent cited civil rights leader and nonviolence advocate Martin Luther King, Jr.

“What happened to Martin Luther King’s vision of teaching our children to judge others on their character?” she asked. 

It was an interesting choice for a historical reference. Students who borrow a King biography from the high school library might come across a 1966 interview in which a CBS reporter asked him about those who disagreed with his message of nonviolence. “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard,” he said.

He expanded on these thoughts in a 1967 speech at Stanford University. “And what is it that America has failed to hear?” he asked. “It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”

It’s not too different an answer than the one Johnson gave in class.

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