BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN Diversity signs were not on Monday’s Delano School Board meeting agenda, but that didn’t stop about 40 people from attending, including 14 students, former students, parents, and community members who shared their opinions of the diversity signs the Delano Teachers Association distributed to faculty May 1.
All but one individual voiced support for the rainbow-colored signs with the words “DIVERSE, INCLUSIVE, ACCEPTING, WELCOMING, SAFE SPACE FOR EVERYONE.”
A student named Charlotte, who identifies as LGBT, shared how it made her feel to see the signs go up, and also to see some of them come down.
“When I saw the signs first get put up, I was very, very happy because it looked like something could be happening and we could start talking about stuff,” she said. “And then, almost within a week, they started getting taken down, and that was really damaging because it sent an even bigger message than putting them up: that I wasn’t welcome.”
Charlotte said she hears the word gay used as an insult on a daily basis, “but that just gets written off as kids being kids, and that hurts.”
Another student named Abby said she had heard students call things gay because they were broken, and she added that she and others have been called diseased.
Two students who left the district due to race-related bullying also spoke.
Mikayla McKasy, of St. Paul, attended Delano schools from seventh to 10th grade.
“In 10th grade, I specifically remember being in history class, and being told by a teacher that slavery wasn’t that bad and actually benefits society,” McKasy said.
In gym class, students asked her why she wasn’t thin and why she couldn’t run “because black people have more muscles and extra tissue,” McKasy said.
She shared a memory of a friend’s mother saying she was well-educated and not like other African-Americans, who the mother used a racial slur to describe.
Outside of school, “people came and sprayed stuff on our garage,” McKasy said.
“Not only was I very unsafe outside of the school district, I would go to school and face these problems with teachers and students,” McKasy said.
She was encouraged by the teachers union’s recent efforts saying, “Putting up signs is not something that was happening when I was there.”
Mollie Larson also spoke of the bullying she endured from fifth grade to 10th grade, leading to depression and a suicide attempt that prompted her to open-enroll into another school district.
“I always felt like an outcast just because of the slant of my eyes, or my slight tint of a skin color, or the genetics of my hair color,” said Larson, who was adopted from South Korea.
Her mother, Missy Larson, also spoke of the consequences of bullying and how the signs may help some students feel more comfortable.
“My daughter experienced very cruel behavior over being a racial minority in the high school. We could have lost her as a result,” she said. “I truly can’t even imagine what LGBT students must go through because sexual preference is even less tolerated than racial difference. LGBT youth have a much higher rate of depression and suicide . . . If a rainbow-colored sign gives any student a moment of safety and acceptance, then thank God. I am hoping Delano can move to a point where differences are not threatening to others.”
A student named Brooklyn said that is not currently the case.
“Being a minority here, I’m not going to lie, it’s kind of difficult because you don’t fit in as much and you notice everyone around you is the same,” she said. “People don’t really accept differences as much.”
She said diversity is a good thing and students should be introduced to it earlier and shown “acceptance is a good thing.”
Parent Alysia Zens spoke of acceptance from a religious perspective.
“I’ve always struggled with thinking that religion is what causes a divide in these kinds of conversations because I really look to my religion in making me feel responsible to love and respect everybody for exactly who they are,” Zens said. “I struggle when I know some of the families that are struggling with the signs because they feel very passionate about their religion. I respect that very much . . . I don’t know how to get through these things, but we have to keep trying.”
Parent Angela Westlund talked about the bullying her Ethiopian daughter has experienced in fourth grade, noting that the family had considered moving from Delano.
“The signs were a good step forward for a family like us,” she said.
Parent Natasha Brenner thanked the district for having a conversation about diversity.
“I’m grateful the school is helping to facilitate that,” she said. “As a person who has children who are half Korean, I talk to my kids about this, and I don’t know how to talk to them.”
The Rev. Gale Reitan said she would like the district to do more to address diversity, such as hiring more minorities, teaching coaches how to talk to their players when playing against players of a different race, revamping curriculum about Native Americans, and taking students on field trips to reservations or the inner city.
Ben Anderson, who lives in Howard Lake but has two sons who have been open enrolled in Delano since kindergarten, asked a number of rhetorical questions and indicated the signs promoted an LGBT social agenda.
He asked if a social agenda platform was part of the district’s curriculum and if the district had considered “the next social agenda that will be used to hijack your school.”
“If adopting a social platform and hanging the signs was the right thing for all students, why did they not work with the district, not only for approval, but work together to come up with a unifying message that encompasses more than a social agenda and a one-sided message?” Anderson asked.
He suggested that the signs had decreased unity in the school, as students wore rainbow colors to show support for the signs, while those in opposition wore black and gray. Teachers have told students who oppose the signs they cannot talk to others about the topic without a teacher present, and one of those teachers “stared down” his son for disagreeing with him, Anderson attested.
Parent Dan Stolfa took issue with the social agenda rhetoric.
“LGBTQ+ is not a social agenda, it’s a protected class,” he said, referencing the result of a lawsuit against Anoka-Hennepin School District. He added, “This is a settled issue legally.”
Following the comments, Chair Amy Johnson said she appreciated the conversation and encouraged the community to continue to reach out to the board to continue it.
While not officially endorsing the signs, Johnson said, “As a board, we feel very strongly we need to stand with the community by participating in the Delano United efforts to create the safe environment within our buildings and our community for all students and staff.”
“We need to train and educate our staff, students, and parents, and the general community at large to what an environment of inclusion looks like in words and actions,” Johnson added later. “We recognize this is not going to be comfortable at times, but we must continue to move forward and be consistent in our words and actions as we work to create this environment for all students.”
Odds and ends
In other business, the board:
• approved meal price increases of 10 cents, to $2.80 for elementary lunch; 5 cents, to $2.85 for middle school lunch; 5 cents, to $2.90 for high school lunch; 30 cents, to $3.80 for adult lunch; 5 cents, to $1.75 for a second entrée; 5 cents, to $1.65 for elementary breakfast; 5 cents, to $1.65 for middle school breakfast; 5 cents, to $1.65 for high school breakfast; and 10 cents, to $1.90 for adult breakfast or second breakfast. Changes were needed due to a United States Department of Agriculture requirement that school districts charge at least an average of $2.85 per lunch because that is what the department pays for free and reduced-price lunches.
• approved Bimbo Bakeries as the district’s bread vendor and Kemps as the district’s dairy vendor.
• approved personnel matters including the resignation of Delano High School head custodian Mary Kittok after more than 30 years of service, and the hiring of David Petersen as building and grounds coordinator.
• approved the 2017-18 Delano High School student handbook.
• approved the first and only read of Policy 515-Protection and Privacy of Pupil Records and Exhibit 515-F Public Notice due to non-substantive and/or legal reference changes.
• accepted donations including nearly $7,180 and a saw from 13 different entities and families.