The Eastern Carver County School District has been listening to Chaska parents ask for change, following a series of racial incidents that attracted statewide attention.
The result of those conversations include the creation of an Equity Advisory Council and the hiring of a trauma counselor, said Chaska resident Tonya Coleman, a member of the council who has been involved in many community equity discussions.
Coleman and a group of parents striving for more equity at the school district have expanded their efforts and have met with Chaska officials to make the community more welcoming to people of color.
What began as outrage, has developed into community action, with leaders in Chaska committing themselves to the efforts.
“We’re really excited this is the outcome,” Coleman said, noting the Equity Advisory Council has already met twice and sends recommendations to District 112. “We’re ready for the implementation of the action plans.”
That list of plans includes a forum scheduled later this month to formally introduce District 112’s new equity and inclusion director, Dr. Keith Brooks, who began July 9, according to District 112’s website.
A location for the forum has not been decided, and more information will become available in the future, said Director of Communications Celine Haga.
A group voiced concerns about some of the equity steps District 112 has taken at a June 24 School Board meeting.
Principally, speakers at the board meeting challenged the background of Dr. Muhammad Khalifa, who is heading the district’s equity audit. His was contracted to help officials understand gaps in district equity work.
As part of the audit, those in the district were asked to complete a survey via email. Some speakers at the meeting questioned why the district had given their email addresses to Khalifa for the survey.
“He’s a nationally recognized researcher,” Haga said in an interview, adding the district did not have concerns with the audit. “I think it will give us data on how we can serve all of our kids. Moving forward we feel good about what we are doing.”
One speaker, Michele Even, said she had gotten some of her information from a post published by the “Deplorable Housewives of the Midwest.”
“I did my own research on Sherief Elabbady, the man who sent the survey to every parent with a school-aged child in the district. I am concerned because according to the (“Deplorable Housewives”) article Mr. Elabbady is outwardly anti-Israel, anti-Trump and pro-Palestinian,” she said. “He clearly has a biased view based upon his anti-Israel, anti-Trump stance, yet he is going to heal Carver County of its racial, social, cultural biases?”
Others who spoke included Cindy Pugh, a former state representative from Chanhassen, and Vince Beaudette from Victoria, who unsuccessfully ran for the Minnesota House District 47B seat in the 2018 Republican primary and serves as the Carver County Republicans Executive Committee vice chair.
Minnesota Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes) was also in attendance.
At one point the board had to call for those in the audience to keep respectful.
Pugh said she was compelled to speak up for her former constituents, one who was “disgusted” from the survey and others who were too “intimidated” to speak out of fear of backlash.
“I’m troubled by what I heard,” Pugh said, adding she had learned a lot from the meeting. “I’m confident that after hearing all that you have and will from concerned members of this community, that you’ll do the right thing and change course before irreparable damage is done to the district.”
Beaudette said he was concerned with Dr. Khalifa’s background.
“I understand that you are with the equity — with the proposed equity project — considering ways to address, the, we’ll call it the perceived racism, here that exists in the schools,” Beaudette said.
“But I challenge you this, why, why would you bring on somebody with the background of ... Khalifa to come into our schools in 112 and address the problems as perceived — there are other people that could do that. But let’s face it, this man here has a — I don’t care what anybody says — I perceive based on what I know about this man, he has a bias,” he said. “I see an expansion, for reasons I don’t understand, of the Islamic word, the Islamic culture, the Islamic religion all over Minnesota and I ask you why.”
Nathan Hansen, a lawyer from North St. Paul, has made a request asking for information pertaining to a contract with Khalifa and information authorizing the release of email addresses, according to a Data Practices Act request.
In an interview, Hansen said he was asked to look into the issue on behalf of a friend who lives in Carver County.
Some speakers came out in support of equity actions the district has done, including Coleman, who is part of a group called ROAR. The acronyms stand for Residents Organizing Against Racism.
“ROAR will continue to partner with the school district and the city of Chaska to work side-by-side in changing the culture and systems and protocols in our school district and community — the stakes are just too high not to,” she said at the meeting.
Coleman also said the district’s work to change was the right thing to do.
“We’re committed to doing this work because all means all in this district,” said Assistant Superintendent Amy LaDue, in an interview.
During the meeting, Superintendent Clint Christopher said the work the district is doing is tough and important.
“I take the mistakes very seriously and always strive to get better in terms of our communication and transparency and we have not hit the mark this year and I’ve taken ownership of that,” he said.
“A parent shared with me in a meeting a month ago, she said ‘Clint just imagine what it’s going to be like next year when things are better,’” he continued. “So as we continue to look towards the future, we’re putting the things in place committing to the work and in the end we have a phenomenal community here and our community supports us.”
Coleman said her daughter experienced backlash at Chaska High School from other students, in an interview.
Coleman and her daughter spoke to media outlets around the metro area about their experience, stating leadership had barred Faith and her friends from hanging some posters for Black History Month in February at the high school.
“The kids started rallying and were targeting the kids who had been in the media and other kids who hangout with those kids,” she said. Those targeting would speak about the subject aloud, knowing those who were fighting for equity were in the room.
Coleman said the high school teens heard others say they were “making too much about it” and that they just wanted to be on television. Coleman said next year her daughter will not be attending Chaska High School.
“It’s unfortunate when you have a toxic environment,” she said.
Coleman applauded the hiring of a trauma counselor toward the end of the school year. “That was a big win for us because we wanted to make sure the kids had someone neutral they could talk to who wasn’t part of the administration,” she said, adding that it helped the teens deal with the distrust and backlash.
Recently, those part of ROAR have also experienced backlash, Coleman said.
“We’re going to keep moving forward,” she said. “We want to create an equitable environment.”