Parents and community members in Minnetonka are rallying behind a teacher who has faced threats and criticism after sharing the legacy of a Black transgender activist during the morning announcements last month, and they're calling on the school district to do more to show they stand with educators and BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students.
Minnetonka Middle School East (MME) language arts teacher Colin Perucco on Feb. 19 highlighted Marsha Johnson, a Black transgender activist and self-identified drag queen, during his “Perucco’s Person of the Day” segment on the MME Morning Show.
In the roughly 2-minute, 30-second segment, Perucco detailed some of Johnson's most notable accomplishments in her nearly 20 years as an activist, calling her a "fierce advocate" for gay rights and someone who is remembered for her presence at the Stonewall uprising in 1969.
"Johnson's work paved the way for a louder and more prominent voice in the injustices that were being done in and to the gay community," Perucco said.
He concluded the "Person of the Day" segment with a message to students to "give a little extra grace to the people around us."
"We're all going through this life together. We are all human beings experiencing the world in very different but also very similar ways," he said.
Perucco shared Johnson’s legacy during the show after she was nominated by a student for Black History Month, according to the Minnetonka Coalition for Equitable Education (MCEE), a grassroots organization that promotes equitable education in the Minnetonka School District.
The segment was available for students to watch through the district’s e-learning platform, but a parent apparently recorded the segment as it was streamed and sent it to the conservative website the Daily Wire. The parent told the website that she “finds the political atmosphere of classrooms inexcusable," according to the story, published Feb. 24.
The Daily Wire and the unnamed parent claim Perucco violated district policies, with the parent saying “there is no excuse to bring any of this into the classroom.”
Beth Robertson-Martin, who is the parent of a student who attends Minnetonka Middle School West (MMW) and is on the PTO’s Diversity & Inclusion team, told Bring Me The News she learned about this when “a concerned parent” shared the Daily Wire story with her.
“I have no concerns about Perucco's ‘Person of the Day’ or his choice to highlight Marsha Johnson,” Robertson-Martin said. “I was shocked that a parent would record something from an e-learning environment since it's expressly prohibited by the school district in order to keep our students and teachers safe.
“I was even more shocked that they would share that video with a propaganda blog given the innocuous nature,” she added.
In the days since the story was published, Perucco has been criticized and has faced threats, while the school and district stayed silent on the issue despite MCEE and others demanding they show their support for Perucco, MCEE said.
School leadership broke its silence Monday afternoon when MME Principal Pete Dymit sent an email to parents saying he has “received many emails from parents, students and community members concerned about the negative attention” Perucco has gotten in response to his Feb. 19 “Person of the Day” segment, assuring them his job is safe.
“I want to let all MME families know that I feel Mr. Perucco is an excellent teacher who is highly committed to supporting the academic, social and emotional development of our students. He is loved by his students, respected by his peers, and I look forward to having him as a part of our staff for many years,” the letter said.
School says it will vet future content
Dymit took responsibility for not providing more guidance about the content of the MME Morning Show and said he's committed to overseeing the content going forward to determine age-appropriateness, the balance of content (including political perspectives) and the impact of the content.
Supporters of Perucco are "grateful" Dymit protected his job, MCEE said Tuesday, but there are many issues related to this that have been "met with deafening silence from district leadership."
Robertson-Martin agrees, telling BMTN, “It is imperative for our district board to issue a statement stating that they stand with our BIPOC and LGBTQ+ community members and that attempts to intimidate and silence teachers who stand for equity and who teach inclusive content will not be tolerated. The board’s silence on this issue to date is unacceptable.”
Robertson-Martin has reached out to the school board, but the only response she’s gotten is that it doesn’t get involved with personnel matters.
BMTN asked Minnetonka School District spokesperson JacQueline Getty several questions related to this issue, to which her response was: “At this time, we are in conversation with the teacher about age-appropriateness and balance of content for the middle school morning show program. Going forward, our middle school principal will be heavily involved in directing and vetting content for the program."
MCEE on Tuesday criticized the district's lack of response to this issue, saying Perucco's segment to highlight a Black transgender woman's impact on the gay rights movement aligns with the district’s values and policies, which were recently revamped to be more inclusive and include "Goal 2" for the 2020-21 school year, which is the district's "commitment diversity, equity, inclusion, worldclass culture and child-centered excellence" (read more about it here).
“This situation is a result of a systemic practice of punishing those who support equitable education and are creating transformational change,” MCEE said in the Facebook post. “How can teachers feel safe to teach students equitably and with anti-oppressive practices if the result is threatened job security, being slandered on the internet, and district administration condemning the teacher (not the bigoted parent) for teaching 'inappropriate' content?”
Robertson-Martin acknowledged the Minnetonka School Board has been working on making its policies more inclusive and equitable, “but they have not gone far enough.”
“The vast majority of parents, teachers, staff and community members in the district support our BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students and staff, but ... unfortunately, there is a minority of individuals who do not,” Robertson-Martin said.
Community groups and students have been working to highlight the inequities in the district. For example, there are at least two student-run social media accounts that share stories of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students anonymously to enlighten others about the bigotry and racism they encounter in Minnetonka schools.
Related [June 2020]: Petition calls for diversity, changes at Minnetonka Public Schools
MCEE plans to hold a march at 6 p.m. Thursday outside the Minnetonka District Service Center to demand the district do better, saying the district, including Superintendent Dennis Peterson, failed to intervene when Perucco was being threatened and neglected him during the six days Dymit and Peterson were discussing his employment status, among other issues.
"This situation was an opportunity for the district to stand up for their educators, stand up to bigotry, and to prove they are committed to excellence and equity. Principal Dymit’s statement and the school board’s lack of statement fails the community, fails the teachers and fails the students. We are not satisfied," MCEE said.
The march will be held right before the Minnetonka School Board's meeting which is scheduled for 7 p.m. that day. Nothing regarding Perucco's "Person of the Day" is on the posted agenda.
Minnetonka Public Schools serves roughly 10,900 students in grades K-12 at six elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school.
According to the National Center of Education Statistics, 93% of the school district is white, 3% is Hispanic or Latino, 2% is Asian, 2% is two or more races and 1% is Black.
If you'd like to learn more about Martha P. Johnson, check out the Marsha P. Johnson Institute's website here.