Scott Masini, the principal of St. Paul’s Bruce Vento Elementary School, has been in the education business a long time, but he’s never seen anything like the reaction he’s received since someone leaked his letter last week informing parents the school will no longer celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day.

“I can’t believe the hatred that’s out there,” he told me this afternoon.

Scott Masini. Photo: St. Paul Public Schools. He’s gotten hundreds of emails about the decision and been attacked coast to coast as unAmerican.

“I did not know this would blow up like this,” he said.

It started innocently enough, with a staff meeting in December at which he wrestled with the question of how and whether to celebrate holidays. Christmas wasn’t an issue. “Obviously we’re a public school so we wouldn’t celebrate that anyway,” he said.

But Hmong New Year was coming and there was no celebration of it planned.

He said the teachers who showed up for the meeting were “60-40 (percent) against” eliminating the celebrations at the school for holidays that were observed, so they agreed to resume the conversation after the holiday break.

“We just had this honest conversation and said, ‘Let’s pause , let’s not celebrate anything until we can figure it out, because the alternative is to celebrate everything and then we wouldn’t teach.

“And then January got away from us and we didn’t reconvene and I’m, like, ‘Oh … Valentine’s Day is coming. Do we be consistent? We can’t really get a meeting together and unlike Christmas, where I don’t have to alert the parents, I have to alert the parents before they go out and buy Valentines,” Masini said.

This is less the story about a class of cultures that’s been assumed by Masini’s critics, and more a story about socioeconomics and marginalization of students.

Not every kid’s family can afford to buy Valentines cards for all the other students. In those cases, teachers often buy the Valentines and give them to those who can’t afford to, so that they can give them to classmates.

“Every one of our kids eats free lunch and free breakfast. And a lot of our kids only eat when they come here,” he said. “I understand that kids that don’t bring Valentine’s Day cards, you’ll provide them, but if I’m that kid in poverty, I’m still seeing, ‘here’s the teacher supplying mine, and I’m marginalized again.'”

Masini’s letter to parents wasn’t an edict; it was an invitation to have a discussion about being marginalized. The online fury that erupted has made that more difficult.

“If this letter had gone out to my parents, they would have said, ‘Great, we understand,’ or come into my office and talked to me about it and we would have had a conversation just like my staff had done,” he said. Other than the staff member who leaked the letter to another St. Paul teacher, who posted it to a closed Facebook group.

Instead, Masini pulled the letter before it could be distributed.

“Even the 60 percent (of teachers who were against the idea) were, like, ‘Yeah, I get what he’s trying to do but I don’t like it. I don’t like the idea, so let’s talk.’ Because a lot of those 60 percent were saying, ‘Hey, what if we celebrate all the holidays?'”

That’s a non-starter because Masini’s priority here is trying to close an achievement gap. And, it’s not as if he’s killing off popular holidays to help do it. “If the holidays come up in the teaching, we teach it. We’re just not going to celebrate it in this way,” he said. That’s consistent with St. Paul Schools’ policy (pdf) which has been in effect since 1974.

As for the conversation he hopes to have, he thinks it’s occurring at the school, but the public conversation seems to be something different. “We go to this quick blame-and-shame piece,” he said. “We don’t like to be blamed and shamed. That’s truly what I’m trying to get at here is what are the dominant things we do that suppress others’ views or the way they come to school, the way they show up. So this holiday discussion is very, very racially charged, and that’s what I’ve seen from the 450 emails I’ve gotten.”

How many emails has he gotten from parents of the kids at his school? None.

Masini says he’s not saying he’s right. “I’ve never once said, ‘this is the way we should do it.’ But I think we should look at what we do and why we do it.”

In the resulting uproar, has he considered backtracking on the effort?

“Never,” he said quickly. “I knew everybody took it way out of context. They were taking it like I wrote the policy.

“My one regret is not being prepared that this could go big,” he said. “I was not prepared for that.”

“My kids at Vento still love me. I still love them, and that’s all that matters,” he added.

  1. Listen MPR News Bob Collins and Tom Weber discuss if public schools should celebrate holidays?

    February 3, 2016

Remember this picture that blogger Doyin Richards posted a few years ago that elicited a racist reaction as it raced around online?

Photo: Doyin Richards

That image, and the reaction it generated, is behind one of Sunday’s Super Bowl ads.

Fathers doing daughters’ hair.

The company, Pantene, is trying first and foremost to sell hair care product.

But, as AdFreak points out today, it calls to mind Richards’ response to his critics at the time.

“The media doesn’t portray fathers as caregivers,” he said. “We’re seen as bumbling fools trying to figure out parenthood or macho men pushing their kids into the NFL. The other issue is that there’s a stereotype that black fathers are deadbeats.”

It is for all these reasons that these cute clips might strike just the same chords. To be fair, the daughters lack complete confidence in their fathers’ hair-styling abilities … and probably for good reason. “I don’t know why they make these barrettes so complicated for guys,” laments Williams as he struggles with his kindergartner’s twisted pigtails.

But a clean chignon isn’t the point. “A Dad ‘Do comes from the heart,” says the Cowboys’ Jason Witten in the ad. “There’s probably not a whole lot of style.”
In other words, it’s the act of spending time together—and the curiously subversive gesture of depicting tough-looking, football-playing dads in so nurturing a role—that transcends the activity itself (including any painful snarls—ouch!).

Though the focus is on the girls, it’s worth noting that bonding flows both ways. Each session becomes a highlight reel for dads as well as daughters.

It’s just an ad, but it’s a start.

Sean Smith, 10, with his sister Erin, 8, at home on June 4, 1989,” the day before her death.
Courtesy of Lee Smith

NPR had an odd disclaimer this morning when introducing its StoryCorps segment, the in-their-own words feature in which people tell their own story.

“Some may find the graphic material in this post disturbing,” the editor’s note on its website says.

Well, of course. They’re supposed to find it disturbing. It’s the story of a boy who found his father’s gun and accidentally shot his sister to death.

“A warning before we play this tape,” a similar statement on the radio said today. “It is graphic.”

The last thing news organizations should be doing is warning people away from the story.

So here. It’s disturbing. And that’s why you should listen to it.

  1. Listen Gone With A Gunshot, His Little Sister Remains ‘Eternally 8’ (StoryCorps)

    February 5, 2016

We hear these stories all the time. Some child found a father’s gun and accidentally kills a sibling. “That’s awful,” we say and go on with our lives. We never hear whatever happened to the child. Now we have. It’s not pretty. And it’s not something to turn away from.

There’s a postscript to this story, reported in The Trace last October.

The shooting death of Erin Smith made a brief mark on Florida history. In the week following her death, four more children were involved in unintentional shootings across the state. Three of the shootings were fatal. In the fourth, a six-year-old boy shot his three-year-old sister, paralyzing her for life. The events of that week and the constant drumbeat from the press were enough for the Florida legislature, which was already adjourned for the year, to go into special session to pass a law that would make it illegal to leave a gun un-stored and unsecured where a child could find it.

The law had been pending for two years, written and championed after an earlier tragedy. Nine-year-old David Berger was killed in Florida in 1987 when his friend, also nine, found a rifle under his bed, picked it up to play, pointed it at David, and shot him in the face. His parents, Bill and Susan Berger had been enraged — are still enraged — that there were no consequences for the other boy’s parents. The family had been allowed to leave the state after David’s death; the local police said there was no way they could press charges. “What we were faced with was that we were told that there’s no wrongdoing at all, that it was just a normal occurrence of everyday life that somebody could leave a loaded gun around a child,” Susan Berger says. Politically savvy and relentless, they helped write the law and secured support from their local state congressman, Harry Jennings, a Republican. The law made adults criminally liable when children were involved in these types of shootings. It helped the Bergers to have something to champion in the wake of their grief, a target at which to direct and channel their anger. “Harry Jennings did say to us: ‘I’m sure David has saved a lot of lives.’ I know that he has,” Susan Berger says.

The story, which provides more details of the Smith killing, asks a fascinating question: Should Smith’s parents have been prosecuted?

“It would have torn us apart,” Sean Smith says.

But the writer suggests it would have allowed the family to be angry at the court system instead of themselves.