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Tensions Run High During Public Comments At District 87 Board Meeting

What was expected to be a routine District 87 board meeting turned out to being anything but, with nearly two hours of high tension public comment Wednesday night.

The small room hosted more than 50 people, some holding signs with sayings such as “Stop indoctrination of our children” and “No critical race theory” while others wore "Black Lives Matter" on their clothing.

As the last few school board meetings have attracted more and more people, it was expected that those with strong opinions on the district’s mask policies and curriculum would come ready for the meeting's public comment period.

“I get that these issues are hot topics right now in the community and we hear them, but we need to be able to come together and talk about them in a more civil manner,” said Superintendent Barry Reilly.

The first topic of the night was the district’s mask policy. Brein Huffman, who spoke on the topic at thelast board meeting, told the board she pulled her kids from the district because of the mandate requiring all students to wear masks and vowed not to come back this fall unless it is lifted.

Retired kindergarten teacher Susan Weeks spoke in favor of the mandate, saying, "The reason that we are where we are with this pandemic is because people did not put masks on.”

Barry Reilly speaking through a mask
Emily Bollinger
District 87 superintendent Barry Reilly addressed the gathering at a school board meeting on Wednesday.

The board does not have as much say on the matter as some in the audience apparently thought.

“The mask mandate is (coming from) the Illinois State Board of Education and the thing that people don’t realize is that we have people (on the board) who would love for them to give us an option,” said Reilly. “We are not going to violate directives that are coming from the Illinois State Board of Education.”

The second topic of discussion was on what some public commenters referred to as "critical race theory," claiming it is being taught in District 87 schools.

“(Critical race theory) is not in the state learning standards so it is not in our curriculum," said Reilly. "This is something that is a hot topic across the country and that has generated a lot of news coverage so that could be contributing to" the increase in parental concern about it. “When it comes to critical race theory, that is something I think people really need to educate themselves about because I think that there are some misconceptions.”

Public speakers such as Megan Zimmer and Diane Benjamin spoke against it calling it “made-up history” and “Marxism,” while asserting it is pitting kids against each other based on the color of their skin. Both women are tied local conservative media; Zimmer works at conservative talk radio station Cities 92.9, and Benjamin runs the BLN News blog.

Several Bloomington High School students spoke in favor of the district’s policies and curriculum surrounding race and faced major backlash from some adult members of the audience. Many parents who felt very strongly had to be warned several times by board president Mark Wylie to remain respectful and civil.

A Bloomington Junior High School English teacher invited the parents to meet with her and ask her questions about the curriculum — a sentiment Reilly supported.

“We need to be able to come together and have conversations and learn. Some of the folks who came out here tonight have not made that effort outside of a board meeting. A board meeting is where you conduct business, it is not meant to be a place for this much dialogue and discussion. Those are things that we can do outside of the formal board meeting, but they have to be willing to reach out to us” said Reilly.

The final “hot topic” was parental distress over a new Illinois mandate for comprehensive sex education.

Commenter Becky Swanson held up a book allegedly being used by the district, accusing the district of teaching children inappropriate topics that should be left to parents. Other speakers even went so far as to call it "sexual harassment" and not age appropriate.

Kara Brown pushed back on this in her public comment, sharing personal stories of sexual abuse that she was unable to explain to adults due to the lack of sexual education she received in her youth.

Students expressed the need for sex education that includes a more comprehensive view of sexuality and gender as a way to make all students feel safe and included.

“There has been changes in (sex education) which are mandates from the state and I can tell you that our curriculum is age appropriate and addresses the things that are mandated by law,” Reilly said.

In one of the final comments of the night, Bloomington High School senior Alex Cox said to the group, “A lot of this is you not having faith in our teachers or even your kids’ own ability to think critically. I am just asking that you let us have that conversation.”

The board voted to approve a resolution to cancel the meetings for June and July, with the next meeting scheduled for early August.

In other business, the board:

  • Started the meeting on a celebratory note, recognizing 19 students between the 2020 and 2021 school years who were awarded the BHS Seal of Biliteracy that demonstrates advanced proficiency in two or more languages. “Those kids are the epitome of what we are all about and that was exciting to see,” said Reilly.
  • Approved a resolution that changes school improvement days through the 2025-2026 school year to two full days a year rather than four half days. “The goal is to have the least disruption possible,” said Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Sherrilyn Thomas.
  • Heard from Director Tom Frazier on the budgets for the McLean and Dewitt Regional Vocational System and Bloomington Career Center. Of the courses offered, health sciences are the most popular, with the center hiring a new teacher in the Careers and Medical Terminology program in order to shorten the waiting list. Automotive, criminal justice and welding also are popular programs, he said, while the geometry and construction programs had to be discontinued due to low enrollment.
  • Was updated by District 87 Multilingual Coordinator Kimberly Taber on the district’s multilingual education programs. She told the board the district hosts 750 families that speak a different language at home and around half of those students are currently enrolled in a bilingual or English-learning program. The district will add a new preschool English language development specialist and extend the programs to all buildings.
  • Learned from Reilly that graduation ceremonies will return to the Grossinger Motors Arena starting next year. He reported the schools will return to pre-pandemic schedules in the fall and that the district will continue to follow state Department of Public Health guidance.

Samira Kassem is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the station in 2021 after graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University, where she was editor in chief of The Argus.