Five seconds of silence May 25 led to 45 minutes of concern June 7.

Parents and community members filled the Sauk Centre Public Schools media center June 7 at the beginning of the SCPS board’s committee meeting. They came to voice their opinions on the school’s decision to hold a brief period of silence during the May 25 school day, seen by many as a politically-charged gesture. Some of those who came forward to address the school officials had tears in their eyes; most of the outrage was not directed against the school, though, but against the system that had put them in an impossible position.

SCPS board chairman Brad Kirckof preceded the public comment period of the meeting by explaining the timeline of events leading up to the May 25 moment of silence and how the school made its decision. According to Kirckof, the event had not been planned by the school until they received an email at 11:14 p.m. May 24 from Minnesota Department of Education commissioner Heather Mueller, saying Gov. Tim Walz had proclaimed the state would hold a moment of silence for nine minutes and 29 seconds at 1 p.m. the next day in recognition of the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd.

“Rarely do we hear directly from the commissioner unless districts need to do something,” Kirckof said. “That being the case, (SCPS superintendent) Mr. Westby and (secondary principal) Mrs. Flatau spent hours the next morning discussing what the district should do. We knew some would want us to do just as the commissioner asked us and others would not. No matter the decision, we knew this would be a no-win situation.”

As a middle ground, SCPS’s decision was to announce a five-second moment of silence at 1 p.m. It would not be for any certain person; no names were mentioned in the announcement. The silence was optional and could be for whatever reason the participant wanted such as losses from violence, riots, racism or the pandemic.

“Many interpreted this pause for a certain person, but that is not what our intention was,” Kirckof said. “We felt doing it like this made it a moment of pause for whomever the students and staff wanted to remember, be it the loss of a loved one, a certain cause, the loss of activities, the people who have died because of COVID-19 or the depression created by this pandemic.”

At the board meeting, 45 minutes were allotted for public comment, and the whole time was used.

Tiffany Anderson, a parent of three children in SCPS, was the first to address the board. She said she respected and supported the school but was concerned that the previous year and a half had desensitized the school by giving them too much to do and monitor. Tiffany Anderson did not believe it was the school’s place to facilitate the moment of silence, especially as it was handed down from the state with a perceived political agenda.

“What I’m asking the board is to regroup, step back, refocus,” Tiffany Anderson said. “We are here to support you, to support our school, to support our kids because we care. We are not out to get you; we are out to get what’s best for our kids.”

Chloe Butler, a recent Sauk Centre High School graduate, said that the moment of silence sounded like a mandatory requirement for many of the students, and many of her peers chose not to partake.

The emotional highlight of the meeting came when Brian Friedrichs, a veteran and Sauk Centre resident, addressed the board. Brian Friedrichs said he had served in the military for 25 years, had lost many friends and did not discriminate on the basis of color. He was disappointed when his son came home from school May 25 and told him what had happened. When Brian Friedrichs asked the board why there was no moment of silence for those who had given their lives for their country, his question was met with applause from many attendees, some of whom gave him a standing ovation.

“Everybody realizes we are one community and we need to stand up for what’s right for this community,” Brian Friedrichs said. “You guys had short notice; I just read the proclamation, and it says ‘encouraged.’ It wasn’t a requirement, and you modified it to do what you could do, but the kids knew. Now, we’ve set a precedent, so what are we going to have moments of silence for now too?”

Several speakers encouraged the community to bring their concerns to higher levels than the school board, acknowledging the tough situation imposed on them by the state.

“I understand both sides to this, I get that, but I ask parents to please take that passion, the emotions, the anger, to other levels,” said Jody Schirmers, Sauk Centre resident. “Go to the MDE, I encourage you. I called there to talk to communications; she said it came down from the governor and they always put these out, and then I called the governor. Go to those levels. Take the emotion and energy and passion up there also.”

Many thanked the school for the work they had done in navigating through difficult times. 

Laura Bromenshenkel, owner of Snap Fitness in Sauk Centre, commended the school for encouraging masks, noting that students who visited her gym would be masked whether or not they may have agreed with the mandates. 

Sauk Centre Police Department chief Bryon Friedrichs thanked the school for their explanation of the moment of silence, and Vicki Pfeffer, a former SCPS board member, thanked Westby in particular for helping establish trust between the school and the community.

Some questions were brought up by speakers during the public comment period, not only about the precedent of the moment of silence but also about the school’s COVID-19 management and vaccination policies in both the previous and upcoming school years. While the board was unable to respond during the time for public comment, Kirckof assured everyone answers would be provided through mediums which would likely include the school website and local news.

Minnesota District 12B Rep. Paul Anderson was present at the meeting. While he did not participate in the period for public comment, he did share his opinion on the matter outside the media center after the period had ended.

“The (Minnesota) Department of Education sent this recommendation out way too late, I think, for it to be acted upon within a good timeline,” Paul Anderson said. “It was good to see the number of people here tonight, mostly respectful in expressing their opinions. I think there is a growing movement across the country of parents getting involved in going to their school boards, and school boards have more power than I think they realize. The bottom line is to do what’s best for our kids.”