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Parents take Black Panther concerns to South Washington County School Board

Woodbury resident Steve Ellenwood said a recent East Ridge High School morning announcement that included a Black Panther poem recitation as part of Black History Month is "Marxist indoctrination" that honored a violent organization.

Ellenwood and about 10 parents showed up at the Thursday, Feb. 21, District 833 School Board meeting to voice outrage over what students said during Feb. 14 morning announcements at East Ridge.

Students read a short dialogue "commemorating" Bobby Seale and Huey Newton as founders of the Black Panthers and followed it by reading "A Black Child's Prayer." In the poem, the child reading it pledges to keep free of drugs, physically fit and to protect their black brothers and sisters from harm.

Superintendent Keith Jacobus said use of the poem during the morning announcements was student-led, was not an endorsement and might have been misunderstood. Although he endorses "concept thinking" that looks at both sides of an issue, morning announcements might not have "been the right venue," Jacobus said.

Students didn't come up with the announcement, Ellenwood claimed. The parents said they believe a teacher was behind it and wondered what discipline would be used.

In response to parent complaints and calls from media, Principal Aaron Harper said he doesn't review announcements but that a staff member was aware of what would be said.

The announcement was student-driven, was not meant to incite and students were not asked to recite a pledge, Harper said.

The announcement honored Black History Month by sharing other perspectives involved in the civil rights movement. "It is our history whether we like it or not," Harper said.

Newton and Seale were the vanguard of the Maoist revolution, Ellenwood said, and they urged class warfare.

"Neither should be honored," he said.

However, Ellenwood said students should be educated about the Black Panther movement.

Representing a group of concerned parents, he said, the board needs to decide "whether this is appropriate."

The reading of the poem was "divisive and hateful," said Leilani Holmstedt of Cottage Grove.

It's a form of bullying, she said, because students who disagree with what was said will be accused of being racist.

"I don't see this as a free speech issue," Holmstedt said. "You should all be appalled."

School Board Chairman Ron Kath said Jacobus has been asked to investigate the incident.

Before hearing from the parents during a public comment portion of the board meeting, Kath said board members don't respond directly to comments made during that portion of the meeting.

After the meeting, Ellenwood said Jacobus "whitewashed" the incident.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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