All Districts — School leaders, parents, teachers and students watched media footage of people storming board of education meetings on projector screens during an event at Grand Valley State University’s Seidman Center.
The outrage –— manifested through shouting, arguing and threats — stemmed from topics that have caused division, tension and polarization including book banning, Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ+ initiatives. In West Michigan, statewide and nationally, many board meetings over the past two years have been overtaken by mobilized groups.
At GVSU, people gathered to have civil discourse around those topics and others during “Calm the Chaos: Honoring All Voices in Public Education,” offered by the Padnos/Sarosik Center for Civil Discourse. The event included a panel of local education leaders who spoke about their personal experiences navigating divisive issues. Participants discussed in groups questions about societal divisions, education and school issues they wished the country would talk about more.
“Each of us has our own story of why we came this evening,” Lisa Perhamus, director of the Padnos/Sarosik center, told the crowd. “Perhaps you are a teacher feeling caught in public debate around book bans or a board of education member torn by competing stakeholder interests. Maybe you are a student who can speak personally to the impact of a policy decision a school made, or are a family member who feels so strongly about what is happening in DK-12 schools that you actively attend and participate in school board meetings.”
‘When you run into highly polarized environments that are happening in unhealthy ways, counter it. Do something different. Talk to the person after the meeting and try to find a time and place to have a conversation.’— Greg Warsen, Padnos/Sarosik endowed professor of civil discourse
Thoughts from Educators
The panel of education leaders included retired Forest Hills Public Schools Superintendent Dan Behm; Grandville High School English teacher Alexia Youngman; Zeeland Public Schools Board of Education member Rick Dernberger; and Taylor Preparatory Academy Dean Dominique Rickett. It was moderated by Greg Warsen, Padnos/Sarosik endowed professor of civil discourse.
Behm spoke about the stress that led to his retirement last summer after more than 30 years in education in various teaching and administrative roles, including 17 years in Forest Hills. There was a “bright-line difference” between when “wonderful board meetings” ended and angry mobs appeared two years ago, Behm said.
He received threatening emails and attacks during the last two years of his superintendency, leaving him in a position of fear and exhaustion and making it hard to lead.
“It’s difficult to watch,” Behm said of the footage the group watched, but added it demonstrates the need for more opportunities for civil discourse in different venues. “What’s lost in our national conversation about this is that school board meetings are not great places to have dialogue. They are designed to conduct the business of a public entity.”
The goal is to bring people of diverse viewpoints and opinions and lived experience together to talk through issues in civil ways, he said.
“We are too often in our homogeneous groups. This is about restitching the fabric that supports community, that supports our society and that’s so very important. … Conversation happens in small groups, community after community after community. We just need more ways to do that.”
Youngman, the Grandville English teacher, said divisive issues have made their way into classrooms.
“Seeing these videos from the board meeting, this is what (students) are watching and they are coming into class and this is what they want to talk about. There is not a lot of learning going on because of so much stress coming from the outside.”
She said students are seeking the truth around many issues.
“I feel like as a teacher recently — in the last couple years — we have been put in a position where we have to stay neutral. That is really frustrating for me because in specific instances there isn’t a position to be neutral, there is a right and wrong.”
‘Conversations happen in small groups, community after community after community. We just need more ways to do that.’— retired Forest Hills Public Schools Superintendent Dan Behm
Warsen, the GVSU professor, called for people to take action.
‘When you run into highly polarized environments that are happening in unhealthy ways, counter it. Do something different. Talk to the person after the meeting and try to find a time and place to have a conversation.”
GVSU freshman Emily Schroeder, who graduated from Rockford High School in 2023, said she plans to apply what she learned about civil discourse in class and life situations.
“Teaching us younger will help us learn it,” she said.
GVSU freshman Emi Zielinski said her parents teach at Hudsonville High School, where she graduated from, so she heard from them about disrupted board meetings.
‘There is not a lot of learning going on because of so much stress coming from the outside.’— Alexia Youngman, Grandville High School English teacher
“We are the next generation, so as we learn about (civil discourse) when we are young we can implement it in our lives,” she said. “Then we can teach our children.”
Read more about student issues:
• How big of an issue is mental health in your school?
• Sharing their voices