When Curt Johnson walked into the Pequot Lakes High School gymnasium for a school board meeting in May, he was stunned to see more than 150 people waiting on the bleachers. It was more people than he’d ever seen at a meeting in his 16 years on the board.
A school resource officer in uniform stood nearby. Someone had recently threatened on a community Facebook page to rush the podium at the meeting like Capitol rioters had on Jan. 6. Law enforcement was there in case anyone decided to follow through on the threat.
Within 10 minutes, the first person in the crowd had yelled an angry question from the bleachers. Another threatened to pull their kids out and enroll them in a neighboring district. By the end, so many people were shouting, it was hard to tell what they were saying. The officer had to call for backup from the Pequot Lakes police.
Johnson could see a friend he’d known for years yelling, “Shame!” at him from the bleachers. Another stood up to threaten that he’d be back and he’d bring six other friends with him next time.
“These people have known me since I was 18 years old,” Johnson said. “At that point you can’t engage. I don’t care how well you know them.”
Police officers in the parking lot worked to calm people down and see them to their cars.
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Ten days later, the district superintendent resigned.
The uproar in Pequot Lakes is a microcosm of the latest culture war embroiling school districts across the country. As schools in towns ranging from Lakeville to Brainerd move to address historical racial disparities in the classroom, they’re running up against the outrage of parents and sometimes students — many of them white.
The phenomenon is not limited to Minnesota. To date, 26 other states have introduced some form of legislation aimed at restricting how teachers discuss racism and sexism. Conservative media outlets have picked up the baton to make sure “critical race theory” — used mistakenly by critics as a catch-all phrase to describe the teaching of systemic racism and efforts entailing diversity, equity and inclusion — stays in the public discourse. One analysis shows Fox News has mentioned critical race theory nearly 1,300 times in the past three and a half months.
And Minnesota-based conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment is running a statewide tour to train parents to “push back against the politicization of our schools.“ They claim critical race theory is included in an effort to “inundate” Minnesota schools “with a leftist, anti-American agenda.”
How it began
In Pequot Lakes, the trouble started in March after Chris Lindholm, the district’s superintendent, taped a video celebrating the work he and his colleagues had done to make their school and surrounding area a more welcoming place over the last nine years. The video went up online and soon made the rounds on Facebook.
After Lindholm moved to the area in 2013, he was struck by the kind of comments he heard and the general tone of conversations.
“It didn’t take long for me to see that life would probably be pretty lonely here if I was a student of color or a student that was gay or a transgender student or living in poverty,” he said in the video.
Lindholm, who is white, focused his six-minute video on the National SEED Project, which stands for seeking educational equity and diversity. It’s a national training program meant to help teachers make their schools more equitable. Cohorts of Pequot Lakes teachers have been volunteering to participate in the program for the last several years.
“It’s designed to help educators cultivate healthy dialogue and learning work that leads to an appreciation of diversity and making positive change happen. We have conversations on power, privilege, race,” Lindholm described in the video.
A lake community
Just over 2,000 people live in Pequot Lakes year-round. But in summer the resorts and golf courses crowd with tourists eager to take boats out on the lakes, bike the Paul Bunyan trail, sip a Whitefish Walleye espresso at the Lakes Latte coffee shop or eat burgers and porcupine meatballs at Lucky’s Tavern.
More than 1,700 students — over 95 percent of whom are white — are enrolled in the district, which draws kids from nearby Breezy Point, Crosslake, Jenkins, Lake Shore and Nisswa.
Lindholm has been superintendent in the district for eight years. It’s where he and his family made their home after he spent more than a decade working in rural and suburban Minnesota districts.
He said only a handful of people have contacted him directly about the SEED video in the last few months. But he knows the talk has escalated online. In April he asked to have the video taken down, and he’s made a public apology for things like referring to George Floyd’s killing as a murder before it was deemed so by a jury.
But Lindholm refuses to apologize for the equity work he and his colleagues have done in the district. And he stands by the SEED program.
“I have talked to students of color. I have talked to students who are gay,” he said in an interview. “It weighs heavily on me that some people don’t feel like this place is welcoming. If that didn’t weigh heavily on me and I was the supe, something would be wrong with me. We are here to serve each of those kids.”
‘He said nothing wrong’
Twenty-four-year-old Shy’Quella Lloyd, who graduated from Pequot Lakes High School in 2015, saw Lindholm’s video after five different classmates sent it to her on Facebook.
“He said nothing wrong,” Lloyd said. “I love Pequot Lakes, I do. But just every place has their little things they could fix or be better about.”
Lloyd, who is Black, white and Mexican, said moving to Pequot Lakes from Connecticut at the start of high school was a culture shock.
“It was intimidating because I didn’t know what I was going into. Finding out I was going to an all-white school — I was anxious,” Lloyd said. “I showed up there, and the kids were nice. Kids are going to be kids. They’re curious about things. You know what I mean? They don’t know what’s the right or wrong questions to ask. And I tried not to take offense to certain questions.”
Lloyd said bullying was never a problem for her in Pequot Lakes.
“It was more passive. I mean, up north, I don’t think people are aggressive,” Lloyd said. “Just mainly remarks — you know, those little slick remarks that you wouldn’t catch if you weren’t taught that that was wrong.”
She noticed police officers always seemed to be keeping an eye on her. Classmates called her “ghetto,” touched her hair without asking and said things like, “You’re so cool for a Black girl.” She tried to shrug it off, but now, looking back, she sees that the way people treated her had an effect. She spent her whole junior year straightening her hair, for example.
“Subconsciously, I think I was tired of people touching my hair. I killed my hair, and I’m still growing it back,” Lloyd said. “People think that because you don’t complain while it’s going on, that trauma equals character-building. And high school, middle school — those are things you carry with you your whole entire life.”
Still, when she thinks about Pequot Lakes, what she remembers best is how well the people there loved her. Her senior year of high school, her brother died by suicide. Lloyd fell into a deep depression. That’s when she said people rallied around her.
“All I felt was the support — ‘We’re dropping food off. We’re going to always keep you centered.’ I got through because of Pequot,” Lloyd said.
Lloyd knows how wonderful Pequot Lakes is. She said she also knows how racist it can be.
“I get they’re a little insulted because that’s their hometown and they don’t see it. … It’s a lack of exposure on what’s OK and what’s not OK,” Lloyd said. “Not everybody’s racist, but there are things and behaviors that need to be checked. And sometimes a Black person can’t always check a white person on it because then it’s coming from a place of negativity instead of a place of growth.”
Mariah Hines is one of the many white parents in Pequot Lakes who took offense at Lindholm’s video. But to her the video was less concerning than the SEED equity program itself.
Terms like equity, diversity, critical race theory and white privilege set off alarm bells for Hines. And when she found some of those terms on the SEED program’s website, she worried teachers were indoctrinating Pequot Lakes children in critical race theory, teaching them it was bad to be white. The way she describes white privilege is a common misunderstanding of the term.
“It doesn’t matter your individual morality. If you’re white, based on your skin tone, you’re an oppressor, and you get to benefit from this rigged society,” Hines said. “So you know, the SEED project is definitely concerning.”
White privilege does not mean white people don’t have disadvantages or can’t make moral decisions. It means that their race itself hasn’t hindered them in the same ways that people of color face discrimination in a system that has historically benefitted white people. And critical race theory is taught in graduate-level courses, not K-12 classrooms. It’s an academic framework for understanding how racism has historically influenced American institutions and thinking.
But Hines does not believe systemic racism is real. Talking about race seems divisive to her, and she worries the SEED program will have teachers telling Pequot Lakes children it’s bad to be white, making them feel guilty for their skin color and ignoring the mistreatment of poor white kids.
“My concern is that these teachers are going to be less empathetic towards the group of students that are getting bullied because they are white, but, you know, they’re disadvantaged. They’re poorer than some of the other students,” Hines said.
Hines is far from alone in her opinion. Hundreds in the community have joined her Facebook group. They share ideas, lists of teachers who’ve received SEED training, notices for anti-critical race theory events at local churches and articles from conservative sites like Fox News, The Federalist, The Daily Wire, Alpha News, Turning Point USA and others. Their comments on the Facebook page are full of political memes, opinions and sometimes misinformation:
Time for homeschool co-ops. End public schools.
Teachers today are trash.
If America doesn’t kill Critical Race Theory, Critical Race Theory will kill America.
The censorship and silencing is frustrating.
In April, before the explosive May 10 school board meeting, members of the group organized a meeting at the local Legion Club to make plans and share information about how to push back on the district.
Curt Johnson, school board vice chair, attended the meeting.
“There was well over 100 people there, and quite frankly I was able to correct a lot of misinformation. All kinds of crazy stuff,” Johnson said. “I’m going, ‘Look, this is the same organization you’re accusing of being tied to the George Soros climate change in the UN,’ I said, ‘No. You guys are nuts. No.’ ”
Hines knows there’s some misinformation on the page. She said she tries to correct some of it where she can. And members of the group often disagree with each other and push back, bringing up stories of times the district helped them or their students. But Hines and many other parents said they’ve lost so much faith in the district, they just don’t trust them anymore. Hines is planning to run for school board.
“I can’t sit back and complain about lack of transparency or programs in the school if I’m not willing to get involved,” Hines said. “That’s one of the biggest issues we’ve had: not being able to talk at school board meetings — being told one thing and finding out the other.”
Superintendent Lindholm said he and the board were transparent about the SEED program when it started several years ago. And in recent months they’ve publicly answered questions about it and put an FAQ about it up online. But he knows people continue to be suspicious and send floods of emails and data requests to the board.
“People ask, ‘Well, who’s had SEED training so I can request having a teacher that’s never been part of SEED?’ Or ‘We want to see every title in the library,’ Or ‘We want to see what exact content or curriculum teachers are using,’ ” Lindholm said. “Those kinds of requests just create a culture of fear.”
Applying the training to the classroom
Pequot Lakes Middle School teacher Karen Rubado, who is white, has a hard time understanding why families she’s known for years, whose children succeeded in her classroom, who praised her teaching, are suddenly up in arms about the SEED program. She’s been through the training session and has helped facilitate it for other colleagues. She said it’s helped her become a better teacher for all her students, and it helps her recognize ways she can offer options to students who might not have the time or supplies to complete their assignments at home.
“I am a SEED facilitator. If there was anybody who is likely to have changed my teaching style to one of indoctrination, it’d be me. And I haven’t had any parent complaints about indoctrination,” she said. “If they’re not complaining about me then ... I’m the one, right?
Rubado said she’s always had a good relationship with her students and their families. She takes feedback seriously and has more than once changed her teaching style because of it.
But she said the last several months in Pequot Lakes have felt different. She welcomes conversations with parents, but to her, it feels impossible right now to address parent concerns.
“A lot of attempts we have made to have conversations haven’t been successful because some of the concerned parents will say, ‘Well, you’re just lying.’ What else can I say after that?” Rubado said. “For most teachers there’s confusion and a strong desire to fix the situation. But also knowing that to just say we’re not going to do any equity work ever isn’t the direction that we want to go.”
Rubado knows some parent fears she’s heard are unfounded. But if parents are complaining about equity, she doesn’t deny that equity is a goal the district is pursuing.
“Yes, parents are concerned about something happening that isn’t happening. I wish there was a way to address that,” Rubado said. “I think that some parents are concerned about what is happening. But we are a public school, and we do need to be welcoming to all students. And we do need to do equity work. It’s not an option. That’s a completely different conversation to have.”
What is ‘racist’?
When the school board’s Johnson looks back on the last several months in Pequot Lakes, he sees a lot of mistakes. He admits that, although the board was transparent about the SEED program when it started several years ago, there are things they’ve done over the last few months that caused people to lose trust. They canceled a promised open forum in April and made public remarks about survey results that weren’t accurate.
Johnson, who is white and said he leans conservative in his politics, is also deeply displeased with Lindholm’s video.
“It’s the message that was really the problem,” Johnson said. “The inference on the video was that we’re a bunch of backwoods rednecks, and it’s a good thing we got educated so when the rich folk and the elites come out of the cities to visit us up here, you know, we all know how to behave.”
But he hopes that bringing in a new superintendent, holding more open forums and communicating differently will calm things down.
He doesn’t think Pequot Lakes is racist. He doesn’t think tourists from around the country would flock to Pequot’s beautiful lakes and golf courses every summer if it were.
But then again, he can remember moments in some of his many regional rural Minnesota committee meetings when racist things his white colleagues said shocked him.
“One of the people, after we’re done talking, made the comment, ‘Well, maybe these people just shouldn’t come.’ And I near about fell out of my chair,” Johnson said. “So we do know what we’re talking about. And I’m not going to suggest the need isn’t there. Just don’t come out of the blocks and accuse everybody of being racist.”
Johnson might not use the word racist right away, but he does think equity work is necessary in his region. And he won’t be backing down from the decision he made several years ago to implement the equity training program for teachers in the Pequot Lakes school district.
At the end of May, about three months after the video went up online, Superintendent Lindholm announced his resignation. He said the decision is not related to the backlash he faced over the previous several months. His new job as superintendent in Cook County is one he’s wanted for years — a place he said he applied to work at back in 2001.
Still, he said he believes the community in Pequot Lakes will have a more productive conversation on equity without him there.
“People want what’s best for their students,” Lindholm said. “The community needs to have a healthy conversation about how do we do that.”