WORTHINGTON — Nearly a month since a Washington Post article about immigration in Worthington was published, the community is still responding to the report.
On Tuesday, the Education Minnesota Worthington 7291 chapter asked the Independent School District 518 Board of Education to renegotiate its contract with Bud’s Bus Service to include a paraprofessional on each bus route.
“An additional adult to manage and monitor students will allow the drivers to focus on driving and keeping students physically safe,” said Keri Statema, a member of the EMW 7291 chapter. According to EMW 7291 representatives, a similar letter is in the process of being sent to Bud’s Bus Service.
The chapter also requests the district consider offering cultural responsiveness training to all adults working with students to help build a more inclusive and welcoming environment in the school district.
“Anyone who doesn’t make each child feel supported and valued has no business working in our school district, and that must include employees of contractors working with our students,” the letter, signed by the chapter’s social justice subcommittee, concluded.
The request was issued in response to comments attributed to bus driver Don Brink in a Washington Post article published last month. In the article, Brink is quoted saying he’s hopeful for another Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in Worthington because “they need to get rid of the illegals.”
According to Superintendent John Landgaard, the district has had a couple of conversations with management from Bud’s Bus Service. Landgaard said Bud’s investigated the matter and, as far as he knew, has concluded its investigation. He deferred further comment on the conclusion of that investigation to Bud’s Bus Service. Bud’s declined comment for this story.
While Landgaard said the Washington Post article contained many misleading statements and aimed to make the community look bad, he said conversations about the matter will be ongoing. The district will continue to explore training options for staff, which includes contracted employees, to best support staff and students.
Student school board representative Aunna Groenewold also spoke on behalf of the student body, saying the Washington Post article was a popular topic among students.
“Students feel as if they’re being grouped into boundaries of an ‘other’ — that who they are and their importance to the district as a whole is being overlooked,” she said. “They are disappointed in the lack of responses from the district.”
Groenewold said the only responses offered to students have come from staff, who assure them all students matter and are supported by staff.
She added that even staff not directly employed by District 518 represent the district.
“They are providing for our students, and we need to make sure that who is employed to represent our district has our students' best interests in mind,” she said.
Protest takes place Wednesday
On Wednesday, a protest comprised of approximately 30 students took place outside the District 518 administration building, with participants condemning what they perceive to be silence from Superintendent John Landgaard on issues ranging from the continued employment of Brink to student safety matters. While the protest took place, Landgaard reportedly met with parents and community members on the issues of contention.
“He (Landgaard) doesn’t engage with students or the community,” said Leticia Rodriguez, who assisted in the coordination of the gathering. “I don’t know why he’s administrator … he doesn’t care about this community and he’s looked for employment elsewhere.
“His silence speaks volumes,” she added.
Rodriguez said she felt the school board also hadn’t been vocal enough regarding Brink’s continued employment as a school bus driver.
“The bus company made a contract with District 518,” said Rodriguez, suggesting that the district had leverage to challenge Brink’s employment.
Among the students holding signs and chanting phrases that included “I will not stay silent,” “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are wanted here” and “Hey hey, ho ho, racist bus drivers have got to go” was Worthington High School ninth-grader Issac Semere, who also criticized the district for not being more vocal about Brink.
“It’s not right what’s he’s doing, picking up (immigrant) kids last and making racist comments,” said Semere while grasping a sign that said “Teach your children to respect my children.”
“He doesn’t like immigrants,” added Semere of Brink.
Landgaard had coordinated a Wednesday meeting to talk about student safety and cultural competency training with members of the immigrant community. It took place at the same time as the protest.
“Our staff and our school and the entire district cares about every student in our buildings,” Landgaard said. “We don’t have time for the issue of racism and we will not condone that behavior, much the same way as we won’t condone other inappropriate behaviors.
“What came out in the meeting (Wednesday) is that our kids aren’t feeling supported. That hurts ... because we all do what we can to help our kids be successful and feel supported.”
Landgaard said “it’s no secret” that a public statement wasn’t made about the Washington Post story, and cited a wariness to “fuel the fire” of some in the community by doing so. As a result, he said, positive changes would become more difficult to attain.
The superintendent did find much to criticize with the Post piece.
“He (Post reporter) mislead us about why he was here,” Landgaard said. “Mr. (Josh) Noble (high school principal) and I spent, between the two of us, three hours with him while he was here, yet none of the positive conversation about the district was in the article.
“In my view, this reporter did not do this story, or approach it, as a true portrait of our community.”
Protesters were scheduled to meet late Thursday afternoon to discuss potential further action, noted Jessica Velasco, who was among those who met with Landgaard Wednesday afternoon.
“The meeting with Landgaard happened because the communities of color reached out to him, not that he reached out to us,” Velasco said Wednesday night via Facebook Messenger. “The youth heard and wanted to make sure they were represented and so (they) organized the protest outside.
“We will keep making noise and want to make (sure) that our community sees the power we are reclaiming as communities of color,” she added.
Landgaard is hoping that productive discussions about ways in which the district may support its students even further can continue.
“This is about people sitting around the table having conversations that can make positive changes,” he added. “It isn’t about people standing on the street chanting.
“The reality is, we continue to do a lot of great things in this district, yet (there is) very little acknowledgment for all the work that is occurring. And yes, can we do better? Absolutely.”
During Tuesday night's board meeting, District 518 school board chairperson Brad Shaffer said that if there’s one silver lining to come out of the Washington Post story, it’s that it initiated a dialog that he hopes will continue.
Data request filed
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Landgaard reported to board members that he’d received a data request from the Worthington Citizens for Progress Committee related to unaccompanied minors.
In a follow-up interview with WCPC Chairperson David Bosma, Bosma said the request was based upon new information he and the committee learned regarding placement of unaccompanied minors in Worthington. The Washington Post article reported that in the past six years, more than 400 unaccompanied minors have been placed in Nobles County — the second most per capita in the country.
Bosma said the committee — which he said is a fiscal-oriented organization that acts as a watchdog for area government affairs — made the request to the school district in hopes of gathering more insight into the process of how children are placed. Since children are educated in the school district, making a request to the district seemed like a good option.
“When you’ve been told that the wonderful diversity we have in town is due to people choosing to move to our town, that’s a great and wonderful thing and puts a certain thing in your mind of how things occur,” Bosma said. “But when you're told that’s not necessarily the truth, you want to know who’s deciding that.”
According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s website, in most cases, unaccompanied minors are apprehended by U.S. Department of Homeland Security immigration officials and later transferred to the care and custody of ORR. Unaccompanied minors are later released from ORR custody to parents, other family members or other adults, who are often referred to as sponsors.