Last night I attended the regular monthly meeting of the Board of Education of Caledonia Community Schools in Kent County, Michigan. The meeting took place in an auditorium in Caledonia Village, where I live.
On the stage, behind a long curved line of tables, were six or eight school board members (sorry, I didn’t count) and the superintendent of schools. One of the school board members presided, another called for votes, another was taking notes. Seated in the audience, but at the front right of the auditorium, were several people who were called on during the course of the meeting to speak to particular points on the agenda. Scattered throughout the auditorium were—I didn’t even try to count, so this is an impression, a guess—around a hundred people. A microphone was on a stand in the center aisle. Entry to the auditorium was through a door at the rear, on the left. A man seated at a table by the door offered copies of the agenda and forms to fill out if you wanted to speak. The man at the door was in a tie and jacket, as were the superintendent and one of the men seated near the front who provided information on contract negotiations and work on process on several construction and maintenance projects. Most others in the room were casually attired or (some of the women who spoke afterward) a little bit more dressed up. Everyone in the room except the superintendent was white—not a big surprise in this district, where nonwhite children are likely to be adopted children of white people. I had noticed a police car in the parking lot, but I did not see a uniformed officer in the auditorium. I recognized one high school teacher in the audience. I didn’t personally know anyone else I saw there.
I arrived about ten minutes late, because I had initially gone to the wrong location. When I arrived, the first four agenda items were already gone by (call to order, pledge of allegiance, roll call, and “consent agenda” items: minutes of last month’s meeting, a personnel report, and last month’s payables. I had also missed item 5a on the agenda—Student Representative. The superintendent was addressing 5b: District Enrollment.
For each remaining item on the agenda, the chair of the board called on the superintendent, the board members, or the people seated up in the front on the right to report. Board members were invited to ask questions. These items included the audit of last year’s finances, construction, reports from curriculum and finance/operations committees, and the superintendent’s report. For everything in items 5 through 7 that required a vote, the votes were taken under item 8, Action Items. The votes were all unanimous.
The whole meeting through all these items was conducted smoothly, politely, decorously. There was no debate about any of the items. The votes were all unanimous. There was no sign of impatience—no interruptions, no noise, from the audience, even when the reports referred to items that I imagine could have been controversial if aired fully, for example, changes in the sex education curriculum (mention was also made of reproductive health) to bring it into compliance with state standards, and even when the financial report referred to two or three million dollars in extra expenses last year to cover the costs of COVID-related matters.
Item 9 on the agenda was Public Comment on Agenda Items. At the beginning of the meeting—or rather sometime around item 5 on the agenda—the chair of the board had announced that for the public comment period, the chair would recognize people who had filled in cards indicating their desire to speak. So when it was time for the public comments, the chair called the names of the first three people who would be recognized, and they were invited to the microphone in the center aisle. Each person was to be allowed three minutes. A timer was projected onto the screen up front. Each person who spoke appeared to have planned well. In just about every case, they took their full three minutes, reaching the end of their written remarks just as the time elapsed. No one spoke abusively or wildly. Some spoke with emotion, expressing impatience or pain or anger, but all spoke appropriately. The agenda said that public comment was to be “on agenda items,” but I don’t think any of the comments had to do with agenda items. Nevertheless each person who had signed up was allowed to speak uninterrupted; no one was ruled out of order, and no one was shouted down by the audience. School board members listened attentively to each speaker, but there was no response to any of the speakers.
I didn’t take notes on any part of the meeting, so I cannot give an accurate, detailed account. I can, however, tell you in general what I heard, and what I think about what I heard.
First of all, for items 5 through 8: the meeting was what one would hope for. People who were asked to report did so. And then item 9, Public Comment. What did I hear? I remember these things:
The common refrain in many of the comments was: We care about our children! We are here to stand up for our children! This seems normal and good to me. One woman said that she is used to volunteering many hours in the schools. She says other parents do so as well. It’s good for the students, good for the schools. But lately they are excluded from the schools. I assume this is a pandemic-related measure. When will they be allowed back in? Why don’t the schools trust them anymore?
A woman stood up to request, very politely, more frequent communication as to when before-school and after-school programs might be restarted. Parents need to be able to plan, she said.
A man stood up to complain about the mask mandate. Actually a number of people stood up to complain about the mask mandate. The mask mandate seems to have been the main reason many of the people were in attendance. A woman told how her elementary-school-age son complains about having to wear a mask all day long. It’s uncomfortable. He can’t ever draw a full breath. He feels like someone has their clammy hand over his face all day long. Why? People go in stores and all sorts of other places without masks. Why do the kids have to wear masks in school?
Another woman stood up to address the mask question. She had a sheaf of papers—things she had printed out from the internet. Like a couple of others, she turned over her stack of papers to the administrator seated in the right front row of the auditorium before going to the microphone to speak. She argued that masks are ineffective. She cited studies showing that cloth masks provide relatively little protection. Fair enough. But she went to add all sorts of disinformation about masks and vaccines. We have all heard this stuff—it circulates around the internet and on AM radio shows and cable news shows of the sort that have lawyers to claim that they are just for entertainment when they get called on their falsehoods. But she clearly believed that she was citing valid scientific evidence. She was sincere, and vehement, and other parents cheered her. The school board members sat and listened attentively. She said she works in the health-care industry. She didn’t say exactly what she does, or why that matters.
A father stood up to complain that in his son’s all-white class, the white teacher told the students that they are all racists, because they are all white. This the father said, is CRT (critical race theory). The whole school system is full of CRT! They talk about DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion)—well, that’s just another name for CRT. Why should we be expected to tolerate all this leftwing ideology? And why won’t administrators even answer him when he asks? He is baffled. He keeps asking, and no one will answer. I wouldn’t have known how to answer either. How do you answer a white person in a white community who sincerely believes himself to be the victim of racism when the schools try to teach his child the history and current reality of racism?
At least one of the parents who stood up to complain about masks, or CRT, or both, said to the board members: I know that some of you agree with me, because I have talked with you, and you have said so. And yet you do nothing. If you’re not willing to do anything, at least resign your seat and let one of us take your place. We will do something! At least one of the parents said to the board members: we elect you—you work for us—you have to do what we want you to do.
A father stood up to talk about his son. They are farmers. His son has chores to do every morning; he helps tend the hogs. One morning when he got on the school bus he realized that he still had one of his tools in his backpack, and he still had his pocketknife in his pocket. He knew that pocketknives were not allowed at school. What to do? He took the knife out of his pocket and put it in his backpack. The day at school passed uneventfully until the final period, when another student who had seen him transfer the pocketknife to his backpack reported him to a teacher. The boy was hauled before administrators. They told him he would be expelled from school for 180 days. The parents protested. The father says he tried calling and writing to various administrators and school board members. No one ever replied to him, or talked to them at all, except the superintendent. The superintendent, he said, seemed to think he was performing a great act of mercy when he reduced the expulsion to 45 days and allowed it to run over the summer. But as a result his son was excluded from various activities that would have been helpful and meaningful for him. He was not allowed to be on the football team. And when classes started in the fall, he was not allowed to attend. He had to take online classes. He is not a good online learner, and even now that he is back in school in person he is struggling. It also turns out that the evidence given against him was falsified. The report on the basis of which he was expelled said that the blade of his pocketknife was over three inches, so that it was classified as a deadly weapon. But properly measured, the father said, the blade is under three inches. The father believes that the administration overreacted grossly to his son’s mistake. He thinks he was the victim of cultural bias. I’m not sure he’s wrong. The father thinks the (black) superintendent saw his son as white-privileged.
This story was hard to hear. Seems like severe overreaction to me—but all I know is what the father said. The father was anguished. He was polite, respectful. But he wants answers. I hope school board members will get to the bottom of the matter. The father’s closing comment was an unexpected twist. He said he was sorry to say it; but it was how things really seemed to him.
A mother of a kindergartener stood up. She was wearing a mask. She thanked the school board for protecting our children by requiring masks. But that was just her opening sentence or two. She was there to talk about sexual harassment. She told of a kindergartner being sexually harassed on the playground. The teachers excused it as normal childhood curiosity. She told of a football player who just the day before had sexually harassed a female student in a hallway in Caledonia High School. The administrators gave him one hour of detention. Just one hour! According to policy, this mother said, he should have been suspended for at least two or three days. But this is normal. The good-old-boy network of teachers, coaches, and administrators always excuses the boys. They have a bright future! They could play college football! We don’t want to mess that up for them, do we? Meanwhile, a girl student was recently suspended when someone noticed that she had a little cannister of pepper spray attached to her keychain. This also is typical: the boys can harass them with impunity, but if a girl takes even a small measure to try to be prepared to defend herself, the school throws the book at her.
This also was hard to hear. I have no difficulty believing the woman, because we have all heard these things before. This is commonplace. And it is wrong. From the looks on the faces of some of the school board members, I thought they were probably going to ask the administrators some hard questions. I hope so.
When all who had turned in cards had been given their opportunity to speak, the chair of the board began to adjourn the public meeting to go into closed session. At that point, a man who had been waiting near the microphone made his move. He went to the mic and said he wanted to speak. He said he didn’t have to fill out a card, giving his name and address, to be able to speak. He was a free American, and he had the right to speak in any public meeting! They had to listen to him. The chair of the board told him the meeting was over; she had clearly stated at the beginning that anyone who wanted to speak had to fill in a card. No, he said, he didn’t have to. She appeared to confer briefly with the superintendent, then gathered her papers and her computer to leave. Other members also stood up to leave. The man said: this is the same stuff they pulled on me in Rockford the other night! At that, the kindergarten mother, from her seat near the door, yelled: If you were in Rockford, why are you here? Do you live in this district? He said it didn’t matter where he lived. He could speak anywhere he wanted to speak. Some of the audience members said: go ahead and speak then, we will listen, and look—two school board members are seated and listening.
So he spoke. He was angry. He doesn’t like masks. He was not coherent or persuasive, but people applauded. When he was finished, he walked to the back of the auditorium to confront the young mother—still seated—who had asked him why he came to this meeting as well as the Rockford meeting. He asked her whether she didn’t think a free American had the right to speak anywhere. Meanwhile, another woman who had filled in a card and had spoken—a tall, large-framed woman, an imposing physical presence—headed toward the young mother, speaking angrily. This was the diciest moment in the whole meeting. Or actually, after the meeting. The Rockford man—who himself never got within six feet of the young mother—defused it. He told angry woman, Don’t go there, and urged her on down the aisle toward the door, and she went. Other people who were still seated or, like me, standing by to see what would happen, said that the young mother had just as much right as anyone else to say whatever she wanted. As Rockford man continued to challenge (verbally only) the young mother, the man in a suit who had been at the table by the door leaned over from behind the woman to say something to her softly. I think he was trying to be calming, reassuring. But I was not concerned that there would be violence. The crowd of Caledonia parents were mostly anti-mask and not pleased with the school board. But I was confident that they would not tolerate any physical bullying, or much verbal bullying. The situation seemed stable enough.
So I left. I was able to leave feeling relatively encouraged. I have read and heard about school board meetings in various places that have been engulfed in ugliness and chaos. That was not the case in Caledonia last night.
But I also left feeling rather depressed. Because the situation is not good. It is uncomfortable to hear parents who care about their children and want to be heard, and want to see change, stand and speak—and feel that they are being stonewalled. After some of the things that some of them said, one wanted to hear someone say: we hear you, we understand your sense that your children are being wronged, and we will try to make things better. But there was nothing in return.
I think I understand why. I think the school board members and the superintendent probably think that it’s a no-win situation, that there is no way to answer back and have your answer understood and accepted. So they follow a protocol under which they listen—they did listen!—but do not answer. My own opinion was that in some of these cases—the sexual harassment, the boy kicked out for accidentally bringing pocketknife that he didn’t even take out of his backpack all day long—there is a prima facie case that the school administration needs to examine its ways and do some things differently. But in the case of the complaints against masking and CRT—how do you answer without seeming to insult the complainants? What do you say to people who truly believe in the disinformation that they have been ingesting day in and day out for many months?
There is a trust problem. A lack of trust. Many parents trust what they hear from professional agitators on TV, on the radio, on the internet—voices from nowhere, angry rhetoric from people whose lives are not connected with theirs except by the strands of emotional manipulation that they weave into webs in the media. Obscenely overpaid TV and radio personalities whose only accomplishment is elevating the blood pressure of an entire nation. And trusting them means not trusting public health officers, school administrators, and (definitely not overpaid) teachers who live and work in their midst and are deeply committed to the welfare of their children, to the welfare of their community. The conspiracy theories that accuse these public servants are so constructed that they can absorb and explain away any possible answer that the superintendent or the school board might give. Anything they say will become further evidence that they are leftists, socialists, spreaders of anti-white hatred, perpetrators of putatively anti-pandemic measures that are in reality malicious assaults on the physical and mental health of their children. How do you answer such a mindset?
Even more difficult: how do you answer people who say, We know what is best for our children? Such a normal and understandable thing to say! But nevertheless mistaken. There are all sorts of matters in which parents do not know what is best for their children. This is why we have pediatricians, for example. And—more to the point—teachers. We don’t even know what is best for ourselves! In so many ways, in all of everyday life, we have to trust others who know more than we do. And with an epidemic, the question of what is good for your individual child, or even all the children, while very important indeed, isn’t the only question or even necessarily the most important question. It can’t be answered apart from the question of what is good for the whole community, including the people who are aged, infirm, with immune systems suppressed because of other illnesses, and you are not qualified, individually, to answer that question, any more than you are qualified to predict the weather, or perform brain surgery, or audit the books of a large multinational corporation, or do any of the other things that people train for extensively and accomplish only in teams. How have the radio voices and internet voices convinced so many millions of us that we are all qualified to reach our own private conclusions in matters of public health, and that we all have the right to impose our carelessness on others? But what could possibly motivate such people to thank me, or anyone else, for saying: I care about you, I respect you, I feel your frustration, this all sucks—but you know less than you think you know, and neither your personal opinion on this question nor mine is a good basis for shaping public policy?
I do not know. But I believe that neither the parents nor the school administrators are malicious. The people who believe and spread the lies are not stupid. They are caught up, as we all are caught up to some extent, in toxic currents that are poisoning our whole body politic. Will we all come to our senses in time, will we realize that we are all neighbors here and really want the best for each other? Will we realize that our own private opinions cannot all possibly be recognized as sovereign determinants of public policy? Will anti-science people come to realize that one person’s individual opinion—even if that person works in the healthcare industry, or has a joint MD-PhD and all kinds of other credentials—is worth exactly nothing? That valid scientific inquiry proceeds through peer-reviewed studies, and that multiple conflicting studies are adjudicated over time by panels of experts, that their conclusions necessarily evolve over time, and that the best we can do is elect and appoint officials who will always respect the current state of science, and translate the science into policies? and that the policies will never be perfect, because human knowledge is never perfect, but that we will have our best chance of surviving and thriving together if we can all agree to follow sound process, and not insist on reshouting the opinions of our own individually preferred talking heads, as if we were remotely qualified to pass judgment on any of the scientific questions involved?
Will we recall that representative democracy does not mean that every citizen, and every faction, has the right to demand, at any hour of any day, that the elected officials and their appointees must do as we say because we are their boss? (How could that possibly work?) Can we not remember that as citizens we cast our votes for people whose judgment we are going to be willing to trust, and then we expect them to do their jobs conscientiously? And then when their term is ending we decide whether or not to elect them again?
This was my first meeting of Board of Education of the Caledonia Community Schools. On my way out, I asked the man in the suit by the door, Is this how it is now? Yes, he said. This is how it has been for many months now.
Well, it could be a lot worse. But I believe we can do better. We have to do better. It is appropriate to feel frustrated and angry. But we could do better by being wiser in targeting our anger. Masks suck. Disease and death suck. Racial inequality and misunderstanding suck. Solutions are not easy. But we must resist the voices of those who stand to profit from making us take the shortcut of lashing out in anger at each other.