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After Parents Protest Diversity Class, District Moves to Control Their Access

July, 2002

By Dawn Lippman
Minnesota Family Council

May 23 marked the culmination of a fierce battle involving members of Minnesota's Big Lake school board and community concerning proposed revisions to the district's visitor policy. Citing safety as a factor, the school board voted to increase restrictions on visitors, including parents, seeking access to school property. The new policy also outlines the criminal consequences visitors could face if they violate the rules.

School board member George Wallin stated, "We never intended to exclude parents of students attending Big Lake schools and we apologize for the misunderstanding."

However, the initial version of the policy stipulated that parents and visitors wishing to visit a classroom must contact the building principal at least three days in advance. (View the proposed policy) The final version requires that parents give as much advance notice as possible and receive permission from the teacher and school administration. (View the final policy)

In a cover letter dated March 11, 2002, included with the original version of the visitor policy, (View the original policy) Superintendent Laverne R. Lageson and Assistant Superintendent Jonathan R. Miller suggested to Board Chairperson David Reines and directors of the school board of education "that this proposal be considered for adoption by formal resolution at the regular Big Lake School Board of Education meeting scheduled for April 25, 2002."

Community members say that after Pro-Family News broke the story in April and Twin Cities media began broadcasting it things really began to heat up in Big Lake. The coverage created such a stir that more than 200 Big Lake residents showed up at the April 25 school board meeting in an uproar over the proposed policy restrictions. Board members decided to review the changes suggested and wait to make a final decision.

The approved policy, which was voted into effect during the board's regular meeting on May 23, defines "visitor" as "any person, not currently enrolled as a student of Big Lake Schools or an employee of the district," a definition that includes parents.

It also states that "legal guardians of students are welcome to visit their child's class. Prior arrangements must be made with the classroom teacher with as much advance notice as is possible. The teacher will then coordinate with the building principal and his/her administrative designee for final authorization." Non-legal guardians must contact school authorities at least three days in advance.

The policy continues, "A visitor who enters school property without complying with the procedures and requirements may be guilty of criminal trespass and thus subject to criminal penalty. The building principal or his/her administrative designee may detain such visitor(s) in a reasonable manner for a reasonable period of time pending the arrival of law enforcement."

It also prohibits videotaping, audio recording, digital reproduction, and photographing of certain school-related functions --- like conferences and student activities --- without previous permission.

"Clearly the effect of this new policy is to make it more difficult for parents to find out what their children are being taught," said Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council. "If you need to jump through more hoops to visit your child's classroom and can't tape classroom instruction, it pushes parents farther out of the picture. This policy should raise all sorts of red flags for parents in the Big Lake school district. It makes one wonder what the district might have to hide."

Much of the controversy in Big Lake centered on resident Teri Dickinson. During a public meeting held in a school classroom, Dickinson videotaped student work showcased on the room's bulletin board.

At the April 25 meeting Reines stated, "in some cases such individuals seek to enter classrooms without permission. For example, last year a community member videotaped student work in a classroom where none of the adult's children were students ...and with no information on how the video would be used."

School board member George Wallin stated in a West Sherburne Tribune article (Big Lake's local newspaper) that taping "is not appropriate unless permission is given by the principal and teachers during class time. They (school officials) need to know what the purpose of the tape is and where it will be shown." Wallin continued, "There are some real legal issues put into play when people are coming in and taping children without permission."

The article also stated that the visitor policy was being reviewed "following an incident where a community member entered BLHS and videotaped students' work." It continued, "In reference to pictures, video and taping classes, the board said, the only time appropriate for these activities is during open meetings or events. 'Open meeting does not mean class time,' said Reines. 'Some parents do not want their children videotaped."'

"The Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council Meeting was held in the evening and was an open, public meeting for members of the community," Dickinson told Pro-Family News. "No students were present. Members of the media and school officials made it sound as if I walked into a classroom during the day and took the video ...Understandably, parents were concerned that their children were being videotaped during school hours and that they could one day end up on the internet. But that wasn't the case," she asserted.

Dickinson, who was considering enrolling her child in Big Lake's kindergarten program, says she attended the October 2001 meeting because --- like other community members --- she was concerned about the materials the district uses for its Diverse Perspectives class, an elective for high school students. "The reason I taped the bulletin board was because I found it fascinating," stated Dickinson. "I really couldn't believe what I saw. The posters described Christopher Columbus as a terrorist, rapist and a murderer."

The Christopher Columbus display was part of a student project for the class in which students were challenged to see Columbus as the Native Americans might have.

Dickinson had previously raised her concerns regarding the book, "GENERATION REACT: Activism for Beginners," (See review of this book)used in the Diverse Perspectives class, to the school board. After reading the book, she said it "did not focus on the acceptance, friendship, and concern for people that are different from oneself --- which I expected from a book on diversity. Instead, it promoted a politically liberal agenda."

The book states, "Here are some of your specific rights according to the ACLU ...you have the right to form a group no matter how controversial the topic may be ...There is, however, one exception: Students are prohibited from using school property for organizing religious activities because of the U.S. Constitution's infamous separation of church and state."

Bob Barrett, a parent of Big Lake first and third graders, went so far as to file a formal complaint against "Oppression and Social Justice: Critical Frameworks," (See review of this book)another book used in the class. "If this book were a movie it would be rated R," said Barrett, "because of the graphic depictions, lewd sexual references, and four-letter words that are used throughout the book."

Big Lake resident and parent Ginny Knaeble attended the school board's May meeting. Knaeble said, "There was a huge discussion about [the Diverse Perspectives] curriculum at the May meeting. Bob Barrett passed out a statement he read. The bottom line was the school decided to keep it. They're claiming it's a resource book. They're claiming too that what happened in the past --- a one-sided teaching - won't happen again."

Knaeble stated she doesn't think many members of the Big Lake community know the board made a final decision on the visitor policy. She and others believed the policy wouldn't be voted on until June.

The controversy, though less heated for now, left a lasting impression on many Big Lake residents. "I've lost friends over this," said Dickinson. "I was presented as the kind of threat the visitor's policy revisions needed to guard against. They made me into a child predator," she contends, "filming people's children, which never happened. Instead of dealing with the issue of curriculum, they spun it so all the focus was on me."

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