Herald Tribune | Ryan McKinnon | September 16, 2020
The scene at Tuesday’s Sarasota County School Board meeting reflected much of the tension that has gripped the country as the pandemic hits the six-month mark and racial strife remains high.
Citizens packed the board room, many upset about two issues: Students being required to wear masks while at school and a video on a third-party instructional site on the issue of systemic racism.
The two seemingly disconnected issues shared a common theme, according to many of the attendees: The district overstepping its role as an educator and taking on issues that should be left to parents. While the mask policy was the main item on the board’s agenda, the perception that the district was promoting a radical left-wing agenda was the galvanizing issue for many of the parents present.
“You want to take my money? Teach my child,” said Ashley Cote, the mother of an elementary school child in the district. “… Teach my child. Do not indoctrinate him with your beliefs and your political agenda. … I chose to have a child. You didn’t choose it.”
It was the second board meeting in a row where new superintendent Brennan Asplen has addressed controversy over the School District’s handling of race. Earlier this month, Asplen pulled the plug on a professional development contract with racial sensitivity trainer and author Sharroky Hollie
Hollie’s first session angered some teachers after he seemed to encourage them to publicly shame one another for racial insensitivity. Other allegations that circulated on Facebook, particularly that he said all white people are racist, were not true.
Tuesday’s uproar was over a video on race that students could view through the district’s “BrainPOP” site. BrainPOP is a widely used vendor that creates instructional videos for a variety of subjects.
In the video, a cartoon character explained the history of the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial progress made since the Civil Rights era.
The character also offers opinions on some controversial political issues, encouraging students to join the protest movement that is calling for major police reform. The character praised the outcome of protests in recent months that pushed the Minneapolis City Council to disband its current police force and replace it with a new model.
“This isn’t about blaming the police,” the character says. “When an officer abuses their power, that’s just a symptom. The problem is much more widespread than that, which is why we need everybody’s help to change things, and that’s what these protests are about.”
“And guess what — it’s already starting to work. In Minneapolis, the City Council voted to remake the police department from the ground up. … We have a voice, and we can do amazing things with it.”
Board member Bridget Ziegler posted the video on her Facebook page before the meeting, generating more than 360 comments. She said she learned that the video was available to Sarasota students from other parents on Monday and wanted Asplen to look into who decides what BrainPOP content is available locally.
On Wednesday, she said the video took a decidedly partisan stance on the controversial defund the police issue and that schools shouldn’t be encouraging students to join movements on either side of the political aisle.
“Whether you are talking about Planned Parenthood, the Right to Life (anti-abortion movement), the NRA, or Black Lives Matter, none of those have a place inside the public school system,” Ziegler said. “They cause division and cause distraction.”
A smaller group of students spoke at the meeting in favor of Black Lives Matter-inspired material being taught within the school district. Some spoke specifically against Asplen’s decision to pull the contract with the teacher trainer two weeks ago, while others said they wanted curriculum that reflected the priorities of the BLM organization.
“Learning about the Black Lives Matter movement is extremely empowering for all students, but especially students of color,” said Nora Ngo Mitchell, a student at Booker High School.
Mitchell said more than 800 people had signed a petition in the past week “that Black Lives Matter should be taught in our schools.”
Board members Jane Goodwin and Shirley Brown both said they had seen the video that caused the uproar and didn’t see why parents were so upset. Brown said the board had no evidence if any Sarasota students had actually watched the video.
“I’m wondering if it’s the same one I saw,” Brown said. “I’m like what’s so wrong with this?”
Asplen said on Tuesday that the district was pulling that specific video, but that families who want to view it can request access from the district.
Both Goodwin and Brown said they were worried the new superintendent was placating a small group of politically motivated and outspoken conservatives, and both said they would be talking to Asplen about it.
“There seems to be a fringe element that is getting a lot of air time,” Goodwin said.
The group of parents shouted down Goodwin, and as they walked out en-masse, one mother shouted personal insults at board chairwoman Caroline Zucker. Brown said Tuesday night’s meeting was the “rudest board meeting” she had ever attended in her 14 years on the board.
Ziegler said she understood the parents frustration, saying “they were certainly heard by me.”
View the video that caused the controversy at: brainpop.com/socialstudies/news/blacklivesmatterprotests.