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Toward an education of reconciliation: Why the Prior Lake student video matters

As if only joining an adult chorus, the tirades of this child are hardly different, only more explicit, from what many parents and adults are saying today.

A November 11 rally at Prior Lake High School following the posting of a racist video from a student.
A November 11 rally at Prior Lake High School following the posting of a racist video from a student.

The vitriolic diatribe posted on social media last week against 14-year-old Prior Lake High student Nya Sigin is a callous reminder of the traumas still endured by children of color in schools today. While administrators will be responsible for disciplinary action against individual students, the harms perpetuated by individual students must be taken in the context that locates their expressions of white rage in our current collective moment.

The dehumanizing video that expressed wishes for suffering and death is viewed through screens framing a smiling face, occasionally placing a hand over a mouth that speaks from a sadistic and unashamed place that explicitly embodies much of our public discourse today. The rhetorical violence expressed continues the disproportionate experiences of trauma and suffering in communities of color, and the repulsive joy on the face that spews racial slurs and wishes for Black suffering and death is hardly the voice of an individual alone. As if only joining an adult chorus, the tirades of this child are hardly different, only more explicit, from what many parents and adults are saying today.

Evoking some sort of “common sense,” a vocal assembly of white parents are decrying the specter of race in education today. Recent elections from the state of Virginia to suburban Lakeville, Minn., have seen adults demonstrate a disregard for Black lives. Adults use a different rhetoric, free of obscene slurs, weaponizing Critical Race Theory, as a decontextualized and undefined fill-in for race, injustice and a menacing “other.” Demanding books be banned and curriculum whitewashed, these outspoken adults exemplify the fear and fragility felt in the wake of the election of the first Black president and more recently the movement for Black Lives. These flashpoints are only the most recent in a long massive resistance to meaningful engagement with and dialogue around race in the United States.

It is necessary to listen to the words weaponized by Prior Lake children in relation to the words and actions of the adults around them. For example, these expressions of racist revulsion are not all that different from those of a recently elected Lakeville school board member. In declaring herself “against CRT, SJW, transgenderism, and every other sick ideology created in hell,” Cinta Schmitz positioned her candidacy and her position on education as one firmly grounded in exclusion and intolerance. She and candidates like her stormed Twin Cities education board ballots including in Anoka-Hennepin, Bloomington, Edina, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, White Bear Lake and Wayzata school districts.

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Schmitz’s victory along with that of Matt Audette in Anoka-Hennepin proved that racism and intolerance are not the issues of children, nor are they issues of “rural America” or some “other” places. Virginia, a state that closed schools and left public education unfunded for years rather than integrate, is not all that different it would seem than the liberal midwestern Twin Cities.

The most recent backlash in education demonstrates anxieties that are not new but have been compounded by the rendezvous of crises that include a global pandemic, economic decline and fatigue from increasingly visible racial injustice and violence. As the domestic and much of the global health care systems struggle to bear the weight of the COVID-19 virus, they also have shown the stress of years of tension because of cutbacks and the squeeze for profit. Similarly, jobs, housing and education have all struggled with years of bipartisan austerity while increasingly putting the burden of economic growth on the back of poor and working people of all races and nationalities.

Finally, the United States has spent years faced with a recurring cycle of public confrontations with the reality of violent encounters between communities of color and law enforcement. Health care workers, teachers and law enforcement alike have increasingly been called upon to respond to the crises above, while simultaneously facing cuts, closures and the burdens of demands for doing more with less.

Cutbacks and divestment have been periodic features in public education for years. Recent closure plans in St. Paul and hastily passed Comprehensive District Design in Minneapolis have only compounded years of austerity in marginalized communities within the Twin Cities. Similarly suburban school districts increasingly exist in hyper-segregated residential contexts saturated by antagonistic disputes over the (mis)uses of education.

In this context marginalized communities in the Twin Cities, including large numbers of families displaced by war and conflict, have seen traumas compounded by divestment and hostile public policy. Disproportionately experiencing burdens of divestment, destabilization and displacement, these communities also find themselves living in fear of violence like the bombing of the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington in 2017.

Christopher Getowicz
Christopher Getowicz
Public discourse, including that espoused by Cinta Schmitz or Prior Lake students, contributes to a toxic environment for many Twin Cities children, of which Nya Sigin is one of only many victims of. This suffering includes trauma of violence that is only sometimes captured, such as the recent killings of Daunte Wright or Adam Toledo in Chicago. Often trauma and suffering, including violence, goes undocumented, experienced in the isolation of school hallways, homes or hospitals. Indeed, the experience of children at Duluth Edison Charter Schools is a reminder that even when children speak up or speak out, they are not always believed.

A group of adults today protest for the individual liberties and choices of children while taking away what books they can choose from and attempting to determine what thoughts children are free to have or not to have. These adults let their feelings deny children their rights to feel freely about the facts of history.

It is time for Minnesota children to choose their own feelings about the fact that in 1862 President Abraham Lincoln authorized the hanging of 38 Dakota people in the largest mass execution in U.S. history as part of the founding of the state of Minnesota. It is time for Minnesota children to have the liberty to feel however they might about the fact that in 1921 three Black men were lynched in a mob spectacle in Duluth, Minn. It is time for adults to step back and give children the right to participate in dialogue as informed members of our communities. Perhaps children’s opportunities to participate in more informed dialogues might render reactionary discipline from adults obsolete, and produce possibilities for a more civil, tolerant and reconciliatory society.

Christopher Getowicz is a doctoral student in education policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He studies race and education policy of the Twin Cities.