Calm amidst Storms: 10/15/13 School Board Notes and Thoughts on a Suicide at Duluth East

15 Oct

The Duluth School Board convened for its monthly meeting in October on Tuesday night, and went on to have the least contentious meeting since I’ve started covering them. There were very few things of major interest on the agenda, so I’ll just breeze through the summary before offering a few comments on the citizen speakers. Member Seliga-Punyko was absent for a second consecutive meeting; the crowd included a group from Piedmont on hand to receive an award, a bunch of East students watching the meeting for class credit (for whom Member Wasson ran about grabbing and autographing agendas), a smattering of candidates in next month’s election, and the usual suspects. The District took time to thank many groups in and around Piedmont Elementary for a “Set your Student up for Success Night” at the school, and Superintendent Gronseth and at-large candidate Annie Harala celebrated the success of that event and a “Walk to School Day” at Lincoln Park Middle.

The only talk on the Education Committee report related to the results of Duluth schools on their progress as measured by the Department of Education. Member Johnston had a balanced assessment, noting improvements in a number of schools but picking out Stowe as elementary as one that had dropped, and again noting the east-west divide in the city. Superintendent Gronseth, who seemed to be making a concerted pitch for the levies in his comments throughout, emphasized the improvements and said Laura Macarthur’s turnaround was obvious proof that the Administration can get good results if given the resources to do so. Member Kasper echoed his sentiments, and Member Miernicki clarified some of the scores for the public, noting that they were raw numerical scores, not percentages; a “17” did not mean the schools were in the 17th percentile.

As usual, Member Johnston pulled a few things out from the Business Committee report for separate votes, but he kept his critiques concise and didn’t dwell on anything. There was a brief and rather directionless discussion on declining enrollment, and Member Johnston expressed some relief that there were very few change orders on the Long Range Facilities Plan this time around, though he cast his usual protest vote against them. That effectively ended the meeting. If I were in a cynical mood, I could complain about rubber-stamping or wonder if Member Johnston was desperately trying to put on a new, more civil face in the last meeting before the election, but the honest truth is that there just wasn’t much of anything worth debating at this meeting. For that reason, I’m not going to celebrate any newfound civility either; we’ll see if it that holds if more contentious issues come up during the two lame-duck sessions after the election.

This brings me back around to the two critical speakers, who were two very familiar faces at ISD 709 Board meetings: Mr. Loren Martell and Ms. Marcia Stromgren. Their shtick is so exhausted that it doesn’t merit much detail; basically, contra Gronseth, they think the Board’s record does not suggest the District can be trusted with more money. For them, the Board seems to be a monolithic bloc of bogeymen instead of seven individuals who come and go, many of whom are probably persuadable as to where the money should go. Ms. Stromgren offered a very selective reading of Student Member Thibault’s anger over Board incivility at the previous meeting, leading one to wonder if there is anything she cannot spin to fit her worldview.

***

There was a second part to Ms. Stromgren’s remarks that is worth mentioning without a snarky dismissal, however, as she took the District to task over its handling of the recent suicide of a 15-year-old Duluth East student. She blasted the District for covering up the suicide and refusing to talk about the bullying that appears to have caused it, adding several details about this boy’s case. After the meeting, when Harry Welty pressed Ms. Stromgren over some of the extra details she’d shared, she cited a Reader letter to the editor from the boy’s aunt that both Harry and I had read about the suicide. The letter does not include all of the details Ms. Stromgren added, which means she either has an inside source, or she is adding other things.

The letter itself does raise some real concerns, though at the same time, it goes without saying that this is an incredibly delicate issue. God only knows how the events in this boy’s life drove him to make such a tragic decision. Part of me thinks it is wrong for a woman who did not know him to make this a political issue at a School Board meeting, but if we’re to take the aunt’s letter at its word, it is hard to disagree with Ms. Stromgren’s notion that the letter asking the family to sign a statement “saying his suicide was not caused by bullying and is bad for the school and community” is tone-deaf at best. However, the aunt’s note is only one person’s perspective, and while I certainly don’t have any reason to doubt her, any ongoing investigation has to be very, very careful.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, rumor and hearsay will reign. (I’ve heard a few details that go beyond the narrative made public so far, but secondhand information on something with this much gravity will have no place on this blog.) It’s agonizingly difficult work, running about in the shadows trying to understand what happened and make sure it won’t happen again while also respecting the rights and privacies of everyone involved. I’m inclined to cut the District and the police some slack over the supposed “cover-up” and assume they’re doing all they can behind the scenes. That has to be frustrating as all hell for the family, and if you’re suspicious of anything Board-related as Ms. Stromgren is, it’s not going to be at all satisfying. If there aren’t any answers in a few months, then there may be cause for some real indignation.

For now, however, grief must take its course. My first instinct is to demand dialogue, especially for the sake of the boy’s friends, who need to make sense of this. To that end, I do think East erred if it tried to quiet any discussion of the incident. But it’s also not as black-and-white as some people would like to believe. Harry raises two key points in his piece on the issue: first, that copycat suicides do happen, and second, that the News Tribune’s decision not to cover the suicide suggests there may be good reason for not saying too much quite yet. I’ll add my own point that may illuminate the silence: if there was indeed a bullying kid, he or she obviously ought to be brought to justice, but the alleged bully is also a minor who must be considered innocent until proven guilty. It is our instinct to demand immediate action, but getting things wrong in a rush to condemn the perpetrator would be a terrible injustice to heap upon a story that is already a terrible tragedy. If rumors were to spread through the students that one among their number caused the death of another…well, just think about it.

In the end, that’s all I can really offer: a plea to think about it. Think about it from the standpoint of the boy we’ve lost, his friends, the school, the police, the family, and even a possible bully. That might seem like a frightening exercise. It is. Read the obituary. Write a check to the charities listed there. Look into those eyes. Imagine what might have been. But not for too long: the world moves on. The family may not think too highly of Duluth East right now, but East is more than a building, or its administrators, or the kids who are in it at any one time. This is a chance to leave a legacy; a tragic legacy, but one that transcends the horrors of the past and feeds into a community that can carry on with a higher mission. How are we going to stand up for Gregory Asher Nugent?

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