By Leah Craig
The Hartland Board of Education meeting started innocuously enough, almost casual in the perfunctory delivery of community happenings. But once again, the public comments portion of the meeting was peppered with the impassioned voices of parents, students, and citizens.
Many of those who spoke at Monday’s meeting decried Hartland’s stance on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and many more spoke in support of the district. The Board’s DEI Committee was established in response to an incident in March of 2021 in which 18-year-old Tatayana Vanderlaan posted to Facebook about repeated incidents she said she had endured at Hartland High School, including being called the n-word and being ridiculed about her hair and her appearance. While being initially met with praise, the committee later received considerable pushback from some in the community.
The crowd at Monday’s meeting attended in response to a March 21st social media posting by State Senate candidate Mike Detmer, who expressed outrage that a student’s ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ shirt was deemed offensive by school administration. The phrase is a political slogan that has been widely used as a stand-in for “Fuck Joe Biden”.
Detmer urged his supporters to attend Monday’s meeting in response, citing that the school permits Pride shirts and welcome signs in Spanish while criticizing the district for what he deemed to be a “double standard.” He was quick to condemn the concepts of diversity and safe spaces but continued to utilize the opportunity as a platform for political rhetoric.
Despite his initial fervent rallying cries, Detmer did not opt to speak at the meeting. Instead, he sat in the back of the room surrounded by supporters and then left before the meeting was concluded.
The narratives and topics up for debate during the meeting’s Call to the Public varied greatly, but the vast majority could be traced back to the role of public education as an institution. Several speakers said that they felt their parental rights were being infringed upon due to the contrast between their personal beliefs and what they perceived the district to be enforcing.
One mother went so far as to assert that schools don’t need to teach values like kindness or respect, and should instead focus strictly on academics.
Michelle Blondeel expressed concern that parents were being shut out of schools and accused the board of having Critical Race Theory (CRT) running rampant through the district, alongside mask mandates.
There is no set curriculum for CRT at a secondary level of education, nor has anything resembling the collegiate level course been implemented or even proposed at Hartland Consolidated Schools. Yet it remains a hot-button debate topic for parents who fear their children are being indoctrinated.
In contrast, Erin McKenna, who moved to the district in March of 2020, stated that she would like to see the district move forward in providing inclusive and well-rounded education, including social/emotional learning.
“Hartland is a primarily white community,” McKenna said. “But the world is not. Introducing DEI initiatives in our schools is imperative in preparing our children for adulthood.”
Other parents, such as Jennifer Beres, expressed gratitude for the teachers of Hartland Schools. Beres, a Hartland parent by choice as well as a sub for the district offices and ParaPros, stated that she “chose to be in Hartland because of the teachers” and elaborated on their continued dedication to putting family first in education.
Several parents spoke about the district’s secondary music program and its impact on their children – how having a safe space and a sense of belonging helped them to become confident in themselves and their abilities. One mother praised the district for placing the well-being of children above political rhetoric and dismissed the personal attacks on teachers as sophomoric and immature.
Amid the emotionally-charged commentary, the voice of the district’s students was also heard.
“We’re the ones involved in these issues,” said Hartland Senior Hunter Brock. “And when our teachers are being insulted, that’s where we draw the line.”
Kailey Lashbrook added, “I appreciate parent concerns, but I can advocate for my own education.”
Despite the Board policy of not commenting on public talking points, Board Trustee Chris Costa addressed the room, stating, “Most of what we heard tonight– regarding our staff, our teachers, our students– echoed and came back to respect and integrity.”
In closing comments, Board Secretary Michelle Hemeyer concurred with this sentiment, emphasizing that the focus of the board is the community and what’s important for community well-being.
The Hartland Board of Education will next meet on May 9th.