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Chisago Lakes Schools

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September 25, 2021

6/18/2021 11:37:00 AM
CL Middle School teacher who showed controversial video is fired

In the second half of their special meeting on Wednesday, June 9 the Chisago Lakes School Board voted 4-1 to terminate Middle School Geography teacher Jeremy Peterson.

The agenda item was originally listed under closed business, but Peterson was in attendance and confirmed he wanted the meeting to be held in an open setting, which is his right.

Human Resources Director Darcy Peckman-Krueger informed the board that Peterson was not to address the board, nor were they to address him.

On May 28, a complaint was sent to principal Ralph Fairchild from a concerned parent that their child had come home upset and was crying. Peckman-Krueger read from the complaint, saying “that Peterson had shown a YouTube video entitled “20 Shocking China Facts That You Didn’t Know” to the class. The parent then viewed the video at home and felt the video had questionable educational value. They felt Peterson was perpetuating stereotypes and that the information should’ve been presented in a fair, and unbiased way. The teacher was providing sensational content and then leaving the students alone to make their own assumptions, making it a recipe for racism, Peckman-Krueger explained.

Peckman-Krueger said that Peterson showed the video at the end of class and stopped it before it got to fact 19 and 20 on the list. The only context provided at the end of the video was Peterson saying, “That’s interesting, isn’t it?” and the class was dismissed.

After receiving the complaint, Fairchild, Jennissen and Peckman-Krueger got together on a staff development day to review the video. After that meeting, it was decided that Peterson would be placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation. Peckman-Krueger then met with Peterson on Tuesday, June 1 for an interview, which Peckman-Krueger played for the board.

However, before the interview with Peterson was played, Peckman-Krueger gave context to it by playing the video in question that Peterson had shown his middle school students. The nearly seven minute video lists facts about Chinese religion, eating habits including the consumption of cats, executions, gender imbalance, birth defects, pollution, animal testing, education in undergarments, censorship, pet expenditures and alterations, sex trafficking, messenger pigeons, pun control, chopsticks, treatment of women, weather effects on the US west coast and sinkholes. The reading of the list is done by a dramatic voiceover with quickly paced music in the background.

After the video, Peckman-Krueger played the interview with Peterson. In it, Peterson stated that he found the video by using Google and that he did fact check the things that were “surprising” to him. He said that it was part of a pollution in China unit that also touched on population and China’s One Child Policy.

Peterson admitted that there was no conversation with the students after the video and that it was shown at the end of the hour and that there was no assignment in relation to the video. Peterson said a portion of his unit does focus on China and some of the things within the video.  “It’s a closed society and the media doesn’t have free reign to record or report on some things,” Peterson said to Peckman-Krueger.

Peckman-Krueger asked how Peterson counter-balanced the video so students didn’t come to their own conclusion and stereotypes. “In general, I don’t tolerate racism and stereotypes in my classroom,” Peterson responded.

Peckman-Krueger followed by saying it was a concern that showing the video was not good judgement. “You reinforced stereotypes focusing on the negative characteristics of the country instead of bringing forward the beauty and culture that makes each country different and unique,” Peckman-Krueger said. “Would you do something different after hearing that?”

After a long pause, Peterson said, “If I were to show it in the future, I would reiterate that it’s a closed society and we don’t know all the facts coming out of China. The government is in control there.”

When asked if he thought everything in the video is factual, Peterson said, “In general, yes.” And when asked if he felt it contained anti-Chinese propaganda, Peterson took another long pause and said, “I mean, you have to teach what is real and what is their culture from good and bad. We spend some time looking at beautiful pictures, sure. But there are some real issues coming out of China.”

Peckman-Krueger repeated the question, not satisfied with Peterson’s answer. Peterson took another long pause before a union rep for him asked for a break. After the pause, the question was posed again. “I can see how it could be construed that way especially to a 13-14 year old,” he said. Peterson said that he could see how from a different vantage point that this could perpetuate some stereotyping “that may be true or have some basis in reality. Lots of times, stereotypes have some truth to them,” he said.

Peckman-Krueger then asked in hindsight, did Peterson agree that the video could be construed as racist and promoting of racist views. “I understand how it could be considered racist from some different viewpoints. Racism is a subjective feeling. There is no universal standard for racism. What’s racist to one person may not be racist to another person,” Peterson said.

Upon reflecting on the video, Peterson stated, “Certainly more time should have gone into reflection as a class and as a group. I didn’t structure my lesson that way. Getting to the critical thinking aspects of geography this year has been a challenge.” Peterson also agreed that the video could be viewed as discriminatory but said discriminatory is a subjective word. “Some [of the list] is very factual, and some may be sensationalistic,” he said. “Part of how you want to teach 13-14 year olds that may not find what’s going on in China as interesting as TikTok, so in putting together lessons, especially this year while trying to keep them engaged, I have erred on the side of sensationalism for engagement in getting them to learn how many trees are chopped down to make chopsticks. There’s other aspects that were good as part of the lesson that were very educational that got them thinking and conceptualizing.”

Peterson continued, saying it’s “bothersome” to him that he was on paid administrative leave. However, he did say he understood why.

“I would think that since I haven’t had any infractions in this realm, this could’ve been handled a little less draconian and a little more conversational,” Peterson said. “A lot of this is based on perception. The idea that this needs to stop me from being a racist teacher or potentially being harmful to kids, that’s very bothersome to me, too. I certainly would feel horrible if a student was teased because of their ethnicity or cultural background as a result of this video.

“I’ve shown it for numerous years, but obviously we’re in a different climate right now.”

Peckman-Krueger said she was appalled by the video as a parent and as a human resources director. She believed that Peterson believed that he did nothing wrong by showing the video. “It’s my opinion that everyone makes mistakes, and these can be used as learning opportunities, but in order to do this, you need to feel remorse, want to make it right and own what you’ve done wrong,” she said.

Fairchild then addressed the board. “‘Shocking’ in the video title is a red flag to me. Put another group there. Shocking facts about Catholics, Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants, and ask yourself where that falls?” he said. “Mr. Peterson said the video was about pollution, but 11 seconds of the 385 seconds was about pollution. 18 seconds was about the effect on California climate. So 29 seconds, or eight percent of the video was on what he described as the main topic of this discussion. How would you feel as a student in that class? Does this promote inclusion? We’ve been dealing with racial stuff at the middle school the last two years and there has been an uptick of this since February. We have had at least one disciplined issue that related to a comment on people who eat cats.”

Fairchild went on to explain that the video is marked not approved for District #2144. He claimed Peterson watched and decided it was OK anyway. “When you think of the sensationalized tone and the music and the clickbait mentality and you think four or five times a year for five years he’s shown this and then when you have a chance to own the error, you don’t look for a chance to own it, you look for the out,” Fairchild stated. “When it comes down to it, one of the things I try to live by as an administrator is would I want my child in that room? I stand for the children.”

Peckman-Krueger listed the action that could be taken by the board. A resolution had been prepared prior to the meeting by her to give  the authority to draft a termination letter. If they chose not to discharge the teacher, Peterson would be reinstated and administrators would determine an appropriate punishment. He also could be suspended without pay and that could’ve been done at any point the rest of this year or to begin next year.

Leigh looked for a recommendation from the administration team.

Peckman-Krueger said that her recommendation was for termination. “Reason behind that is because there was no accountability for anything that was done wrong, in my opinion. I can’t sit before you tonight and tell you that in the interview that he gave me anything that I can stand up to and defend his actions. I have to stand up for the students that don’t have a voice at this table right now. I have to stand up against racism, stereotyping and prejudice. So that is my recommendation.”

Fairchild also echoed that recommendation, as did Jennissen. “That is a situation where there is a lot of harmful stuff being shared there and no opportunity to process that information. I struggle with the lack of ability to connect for the students why this was even being shown,” Jennissen said. “We don’t have anything to work with here from the employee in terms of accountability, therefore I would also recommend termination.”

Board member Jeff Lindeman kicked off the discussion. “I’m not supporting the video, but how do you know the intent of the accused’s heart or mind?” Lindeman asked the room. “You made greater judgments than what you’re accusing him of and that’s really troubling to me that you would release an employee in our district that got to this point being observed numerous ways. Yes, the video was sensationalized, but I think [Peckman-Krueger’s] accusations against him were also sensationalized. Darcy mentions ‘I think’, ‘I felt’, ‘I want’, ‘I don’t know how you did that’. [Peckman-Krueger’s] opinion and personal vindictiveness comes through.”

“Alright that’s enough. We don’t need to talk about Darcy and her character,” board member Dani Strenke snapped at Lindeman. “That’s ridiculous.”

“I think it’s really critical when you look at this based on releasing a teacher based on a 327 second video, and I can honestly say that there’s a lot of truth in those videos,” Lindeman answered.

Strenke said, “The one thing I heard him say in his interview that bothers me the most is that he said that racism is subjective. It is not. Racism is hate. And that is exactly what was in that video and he had no remorse, he had no compassion and no understanding of how wrong that was, and that greatly disturbs me. That’s only one example of what he’s been showing in his classroom. And no, he never discussed the video with them to even help them process what they just saw. That’s completely irresponsible.”

“Why is he showing something that’s not approved?” Board member Brenda Carlson asked. Peckman-Krueger said that there is a little sign that comes up on the video saying that it’s not approved for district use. That shows up on many different videos. It’s YouTube stating that it should be reviewed to see if it’s proper to show.

Peckman-Krueger also acknowledged that the discipline policy typically features progressive discipline including verbal and written warnings. “But I also think when something rises to a situation such as this, you don’t have to use progressive discipline steps,” she explained. Peckman-Krueger also stated that Peterson had a letter of direction in his file from 2012 for showing an improper video. Letters of direction are non-disciplinary in nature.

Lindeman asked board chairman Mark Leigh if he believed all the points in the video were wrong or false. Leigh said the video sickened him. “That video should’ve never been shown to anyone in our school system. Ever. Not one part of it. It had nothing to do with a geography lesson about pollution,” Leigh said emphatically. “All that video was, was a put down of the Chinese people and a 13-14 year old kid in our school system cannot process that nor did [Mr. Peterson] allow them to. He did not do anything except show the video and send them out the door. It sickened me. This district, in my opinion, has no other choice.”

Lindeman felt that it sets a dangerous precedent to release a teacher over a 327 second video. “If my kid was in that class and came home and shared that with me, I’d be doing as much or more as what’s happened,” Leigh rebuked.

“The reason I’m on this board is for the kids, and if there is one kid who got hurt by this, I’m done. This is a big deal,” Carlson said. “We are on this board to protect the kids. And we could not, we did not do that. And that’s on us too. Fight for whatever you want, but if there’s one kid who was hurt, I’m done.”

Board member Lori Berg, who had started a comment earlier but broke down emotionally trying to put it into words, gathered herself and shared her thoughts. “There was a kid who had to sit there and take it. These are impressionable middle schoolers listening to this, and this is their impression of China. It’s completely inappropriate in every possible way. And to not, as the adult who's supposed to care for the kids, realize this is inappropriate, I’m sorry, we need better judgement than that,” she said. “I know we have teacher observations, but a teacher being observed isn’t going to show this video. This has affected the children in our middle school. I guarantee it. It has shaped their perceptions. And I know how middle school kids are. Are they looking at their Asian friends now and saying ‘Oh are you going to eat my cat?’ You bet they are. This is how this age level processes things. This is completely inappropriate. Our job is to protect kids, and right now, with the anti-Asian rhetoric, this was poor timing, poor judgement, and feeds into the racism that has taken off nationally and I could never support this going forward.”

“I don’t think anybody is supporting the video, I just hate to kick a teacher to the curb who has been in our district for all these years,” Lindeman said. “At what point is it OK to teach certain things? It was a video that shouldn’t have been shown and the timing was bad obviously as well, but I also think about Jeremy as a teacher who has been in our district all these years and for 327 seconds, he’s going to be removed from his position. I think we ought to give him a chance.”

“It’s not just about the teacher,” Berg responded. “You keep saying 327 seconds and your whole career can change. Yea, bad things can happen in that many seconds. You can make one bad decision and it can change your career.”

Lindeman said he didn’t believe Peterson meant the video in a racist way.

“I don’t think Jeremy even knows it was racist at all. He never acknowledged that it was,” Leigh said. “It shows such poor judgement. It shows he doesn't understand his role as a teacher in the classroom and what his affect is on children.”

Lindeman suggested potential training or an alternative way of discipline. “You can’t tell me how Jeremy’s heart or mind is here in that interview. I suggest we don’t terminate. We give chance. I didn’t think we were in the business of kicking people to curb?” Lindeman continued. “There are problems at the high school and middle school with racism.” Leigh quickly responded, saying “And we have an opportunity here tonight to take a stand.”

“That’s true, but you’ll also sacrifice. Every teacher will be very nervous about showing anything,” Lindeman said. “Teachers are wondering because you’re not with them. I talk to them. And they are wondering what’s acceptable.”

“I think a teacher that has good judgement is not really sitting out there wondering if this is a video they should’ve played,” Berg contended.
“We all make mistakes, but this so hurt one child that their parents had to bring this forward. I’m sure it’s hurt many kids. If we don’t take a stand here as a board, what are we here for? What good are we?” Leigh asked.

“You can denounce and say this was not acceptable and scare everyone straight, and it can also be a time of learning for everybody. People can change and see things in a different light,” Lindeman responded.

Berg asked Lindeman how many letters a teacher should get about the same issue, citing Peterson’s letter in 2012. Lindeman felt they should follow the standard policy of verbal warning, citing the board policy on the discipline saying, “if you want to follow your own policy, it’s right here.”

Berg repeated, “depending on the offense” to Lindeman as he said that, pointing at him during one instance. “Don’t point your finger at me, please,” Lindeman said to her tersely.

“Yes it is a leap to go to dismissal, but how egregious is the situation? This is a very egregious situation,” Jennissen said.

The board was silent for quite some time after discussion ended, processing the situation. Finally, Carlson broke the silence, saying, “What’s our next step?”

Berg presented the options to the board again, including a resolution to terminate or to not terminate and allow the administrators to hand out discipline, and Leigh read the official resolution in regards to termination.

Strenke made a motion to approve the resolution to terminate, and Berg seconded it.

Leigh asked if there was any more discussion. Lindeman responded, “I know Jeremy is not a racist. I know him personally and have for a number of years. I do feel he feels remorse for this. I know him to be a person of passion and kindness to others and how he lives his life. I know about his personal life and if there’s a person who’s not racist, it’s Jeremy. It’s a bad choice to show the video, I just don’t think it’s a proper place for us to terminate him.”

Leigh, Berg, Strenke and Carlson voted in favor of the resolution to terminate Peterson while Lindeman voted no. Board member Melissa Donovan was absent. With no more discussion, the meeting was quickly adjourned for the night.

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