by SARAH SQUIRES and ALEXANDRA RETTER
The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board met in closed session with its attorney on the phone for more than an hour on Thursday night, and in the end, it agreed to a settlement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (DHR) that promises WAPS will do better when it comes to combatting discrimination and its use of a police liaison officer. In exchange, the state agency vowed not to pursue further legal action on behalf of any related unnamed party.
While the district has been working under a separate agreement with the DHR due to its unequal discipline of black students — the state found WAPS had suspended black students 8.5 times the rate of their white peers — the settlement approved on Thursday was in response to a different state investigation, one that appears to have been prompted in 2017 by complaints of discrimination.
Little in the meeting that was open to the public shed light on the accusations that prompted the investigation and settlement. Clues to the substance of the allegations came in snippets: “school to prison pipeline,”implicit bias,” board members mentioned. Board member Steve Schild said he didn’t want the district to face a lawsuit.
The general settlement calls for all employees and secondary students — specifically, the liaison officer that patrols the high school and ALC — participate in training to combat bias. This type of “cultural competency” training is familiar for District 861; as part of its agreement with DHS over unequal suspension rates, staff have already been required to attend similar training annually.
The settlement also requires the district to adopt a policy that directs the role of the district’s liaison officer — a city police officer contracted by WAPS — making clear the law enforcement official is only to handle criminal matters and crisis intervention when necessary, and that the individual may not participate in school discipline.
Under the settlement, “There’s no amdission on behalf of the district,” stated board member Jim Schul. “We’re merely going to do more of what we should have been doing all along.” As a Winona State University professor, Schul said he had attended similar training and found it insightful.
“I don’t want to bog us down in lawsuits. I don’t want us spending a lot of money,” Schild said.
Board chair Nancy Denzer and board member Karl Sonneman said they didn’t think the settlement went far enough. “I’m kind of shocked by how the Department of Human Rights handles things,” Sonneman added.
“I will reluctantly vote for this,” stated Schild. “I say reluctantly because while there are good things in here that we are pursuing and we should continue to, there is, it strikes me that there is possible harm with public perception about what goes on in the schools by the lack of detail here. And in addition to that, when I read about such things where there’s the ‘everybody denies everything’ sort of thing, I don’t think that there’s very satisfactory pieces of information that the public can understand.”
“I will also be supporting the motion to accept the settlement,” board member Allison Quam said. “I think it’s another example of how the board and the administration is acknowledging that there are things in this district that need healing, and that we need to have uncomfortable and open conversations about those things that have caused harm to people. It’s also important to acknowledge that — we’ve talked about this before — that not every student in this district has had a harmful experience, but we really need to make sure that we take care of the children who have, and there are some. So I think this is leading us down that path of healing.”
Denzer noted that the issues that prompted the investigation and settlement arose in 2017, prior to the majority of the board’s tenure with the district.
That year came on the tail end of several years of racial tension in the halls of WAPS schools that prompted multiple forums and community discussions surrounding racism. Some students said at the time they didn’t feel safe at school, and that law enforcement and school officials doled out punishment more often to black students.
In late 2015, a man known to display the Confederate flag from his truck struck a black child — who survived — while driving through the Maplewood Townhomes. When he exited the vehicle, onlookers there assaulted him. The flag was later stolen and found burned at the housing development.
Over the next several years, students reported seeing the Confederate flag displayed at school, some stating it was used as a way to taunt students of color. The flag was found in science projects, on shirts, notebooks, and on students’ laptop screen savers, and the flag prompted several physical fights at Winona Senior High School.
Students called on school leaders to make changes, and asked that the Confederate flag be banned from school premises. Following legal investigations into whether the flag could be banned, district administrators discouraged it from being brought to campus, and policies suggest it will be removed if it is deemed as causing a disruption.
While the board brought forth little information about the substance of the allegations or investigation, prior to meeting in closed session, the Winona Post asked that the board keep the meeting open to the public and discuss the issues at the board table. The Post and Sonneman advised the board that the Minnesota Open Meeting Law compels most public business to be discussed in open session. Board members Sonneman, Quam, and Hanratty agreed, but the motion failed when Denzer, Schild, Schul, and Tina Lehnertz voted against it.
When the board reconvened following the closed session, it voted unanimously to accept the settlement agreement. However, the board and administrators failed to provide a public copy of the settlement during the meeting, something that is expressly required by the Minnesota Open Meeting Law. After it was requested, WAPS provided the document following the meeting.