To The Editor;
I write this personal statement today as a parent and a community member. These are my views and they may not reflect the views of my colleagues on the Grant Public Schools Board of Education (BOE).
My name is Rob Schuitema and I have been a trustee on the BOE since January of 2021. I am a graduate of Grant High School, class of 1991 and come from a family that has strong ties to this district. My father taught in the middle school for 36 years, my mother worked in the district for over 25 years and I have 2 family members still working in the school. We have dedicated our lives to this district. My two kids attend Grant Public Schools and are active in many academic and extracurricular activities. We love this school.
What occurred at the Board meeting on October 10th was one of the most shameful displays of bad behavior I have ever heard of. I was unable to attend the meeting in question as I had a previous commitment at work. As I watched the news, I was shocked and appalled by the public display of animosity and bullying toward our students and the Child and Adolescent Health Center (CAHC) housed in the Middle School.
First, I would like to apologize to Evelyn Gonzalez for the behavior demonstrated by those that attended the board meeting last month. She was unfairly punished for showcasing her amazing talents, talents that were awarded in the contest hosted by the CAHC and hand-picked by the leaders of our district. She created a wonderful piece of artwork that should be celebrated, not chastised. She had her integrity challenged by people who are supposed to protect our students, this is indefensible, and I apologize for the hardship that this has caused. This is a terrible situation and I hope she has been able to take some solace in the outpouring of positivity and support, both within this community and from the outside. I am one of those supporters and I stand proudly by her.
Not only is this an attack on one of our students, but this is also an indictment of our award-winning art program. That infuriates me. I have witnessed firsthand the accomplishments of our fine arts programs, both visual and performing arts, and the amazing students who have competed and won at the highest level. We have incredible teachers who have guided them to their success. Those teachers have sacrificed so much to provide a creative, and more importantly, safe environment to blossom. They have challenged our students every day to be the very best they can be. To have to sit here, in this very room (Middle School Cafeteria), and listen to adults berate and belittle a fantastic student because they don’t understand, or like, their work is absolutely deplorable. Jill Kuebler, our high school art teacher, has dedicated her professional career to GPS students, she has gone above and beyond to have a lasting positive impact on our creative minds. She is a treasure to this community.
Second, public discourse is a vital part of the Michigan Department of Education's Curriculum Standards and it encourages discussion of current topics, trends, policies, and laws, etc. It is an opportunity to engage students in debate and conversation. This is the foundation for art as well. Art is an interpretation as well as an avenue for conversation. It is NOT an opportunity to demonstrate bullying behavior.
Michigan Public Schools has a vision statement for every district in the state. It is: “Every learner in Michigan's public schools will have an inspiring, engaging, and caring learning environment that fosters creative and critical thinkers who believe in their ability to positively influence Michigan and the world beyond.”
This statement is the foundation for the rules and policies that we must adhere to as students, faculty, Board of Education members, and community members. The events of the last month have reminded me that it’s good to revisit those policies from time to time to make sure I, as a parent and a member of the BOE, understand them and comply.
Our Student Handbooks clearly states the district's policies when it comes to discrimination and harassment. In the section on harassment, it emphasizes the importance of the safety and comfort of the students as a top priority in our school. “Unwanted sexual actions or comments, derogatory statements, or action concerning his/her gender, religion, race, ethnic group or disability is prohibited.”
The section entitled: Sexual/Gender/Ethnic/Religious/Disability Harassment states that “Written or verbal threats concerning gender, national origin, and religion will not be tolerated.” It also states that the policy of the district is “To provide a safe and nurturing educational environment for all its students. Bullying or other aggressive behavior toward a student, whether by other students, staff, or third parties, including board members, parents, guests, contractors, vendors, and volunteers is strictly prohibited.”
Furthermore, the district adheres Title IX: “It is the policy of Grant Public Schools not to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, age, color, national origin, religion or handicap in its educational programs, activities, admission, or employment policies as required by Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, Executive Order 11246 as amended.”
Additional language was introduced to Title IX: “In the landmark 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County case, the Supreme Court held that federal law prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sex necessarily prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. The Biden administration has followed this interpretation, as it must, in enforcing other civil rights laws, including those that protect students and educators from discrimination on the basis of sex, including gender identity or sexual orientation.” To read more about this, read the September 26th, 2022 article by the National Education Association’s article discussing this case and its outcome for students and educators.
What does this all mean? We are a public school and we follow the laws set forth by the Federal, State, and local government and we set policies based on those laws. No exceptions.
Third, I have heard comments stating that if the artwork had depictions of Christian symbolism they would not be allowed. This is completely false. We cannot discriminate against religion, sexual orientation, race, etc. as I have stated. In fact, Christian influences are abundant in our school system including choir concerts, speeches at graduation, and beyond. The district has taken students to visit 2 and 4-year colleges, including Christian colleges and universities.
They are present in clubs like FCA, Release Bible School, and Baccalaureate. The argument may be made that these are hosted offsite because of the Separation of Church and State. Baccalaureate has been held at the Fine Art Center, attached to the High School which is not a violation because it is led by students and local religious leaders as a partnership with the district to utilize the facility. If a similar question arose about the mural in the Child and Adolescent Health Center, the same can be said. It is an outside organization in partnership with the district.
Christian symbolism is present in our students' artwork as well. I encourage everyone to check out their work in the schools, Fine Art Center, and at local and regional art shows. You will see many examples of both pop culture (like the symbol in Evelyn’s work), political commentary, and religious references. Our teachers do not instruct students to exclude religious messages, characters, or symbols. What the fine art teachers mandate is that the work not include gore, violent acts, sexually explicit content, and bullying. In fact, if you go into Mrs. Kuebler’s classroom and look at the bricks lining the walls you will see images and messages from past students (it is a tradition for outgoing senior art students to paint a brick) some contain bible verses as well as other Christian symbolism.
Finally, I would like to address the vitriol that is now targeting the Teen Health Center. Let me ask you one question. If you had someone come into your place of business and demand you change things just because they didn’t like it, or found it offensive even though it is perfectly legal, how would you react? That is what is happening to the CAHC. They hosted a contest for GPS students and a winner was selected. The student created a painting and added detail to fill the space. They did so with pop culture references and symbolism important to their culture and if a conversation would have taken place to understand its meaning before casting judgment, maybe this situation could have been avoided. But that didn’t happen and now we are all dealing with the repercussions.
What I do know is the Teen Health Center is an invaluable resource for our community. They provide service to 1400 kids (this is an unduplicated number) from Grant, Kent City, Newaygo, Fremont, and other areas. Every child who is seen needs to have a signed parent consent form. They are grant funded so that their services can be offered to all kids regardless of their family's ability to pay. Many of the kids they see do not have insurance and this is their primary access to basic health care. From routine doctor appointments to sports physicals and mental health services.
It is disgraceful that personal agendas and misunderstanding has led us down a path where we are at odds with each other. That shouldn’t have happened but it has. The question is, where do we go from here? It cannot be a path of bickering and infighting, bullying, and name-calling. Personal agendas need to be set aside as well as personal beliefs. What we have to do is move forward with leadership and compassion. Understanding and compromise. If not, this situation will only get worse. The country is watching, whether we like it or not. We must lead by example and remember our mission. Students come first!
Trustee, Grant Public Schools Board of Education
Grant Resident and Concerned Parent
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