The subject was $1,000 bullet-proof blankets being marketed to keep children safe in schools.
“It seems to me we’ve reached some level of craziness,” Dennis Carlson said recently, on the eve of his retirement as superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the state’s largest.
“Children have to feel safe,” Carlson continued. “But this is the atmosphere we’re going to set for them? My God!”
Carlson, 66, who became superintendent in 2009 and guided Anoka-Hennepin through its most tumultuous and scrutinized period ever, was asked what his legacy might be and to predict the future of education.
He talked about how, earlier this month, a disabled student left his wheelchair, walked on stage and accepted his Blaine High School diploma as the audience erupted in applause.
At another school, Carlson said a custodian approached him. “I just want to thank you,” the man told Carlson. “My daughter got the best education possible.”
And then he talked about the dozens of gay and lesbian kids he met with repeatedly in recent years, kids who were bullied in numerous ways, and about the kids who fought for a landmark consent decree that created a five-year anti-harassment partnership between the school district and the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education.
“We did well with keeping our kids safe and making our gay kids feel safe and normal,” Carlson said.
“The legacy should be student success,” he said, pointing to a 95 percent graduation rate over five years. “We stick with our kids. To get to student success, you’ve got to keep them safe.”
Constantly working under a microscope and the blinding glare of the national spotlight, Carlson and his staff toiled for years, searching for words and ways to let LGBT kids know they would be protected while answering questions from critics who wondered whether Christian beliefs were being compromised.
In recent years, six Anoka-Hennepin students committed suicide and a seventh died from a suspected drug overdose. At least three of the six students were identified as gay. Charges of bullying were rampant.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper explored the issue. Rolling Stone came to town. Local media and national networks often seemed unrelenting.
Carlson says he took things very personally and often couldn’t sleep at night. He discovered that media coverage often isn’t balanced, he said, that the cameras and notepads weren’t always interested in hearing all sides of the story, particularly the district administration’s.
Meanwhile, Carlson, the educator, was learning all along. Growing up in rural Aitkin, he says he knew nothing about gay kids. Now, he doesn’t know of another superintendent in the country who has talked to as many gay kids as he has.
“I’m glad I was here at that time,” he said.
It wasn’t easy or always comfortable. Some staff was supportive, he said. Others weren’t.
“It’s really hit me that a ton of this job, you’re alone,” Carlson said. “Not a lot of people weigh in on those [complicated] issues. You do an awful lot of self-reflecting.
“You’re the face of the district, and you get hammered. You can’t say what you know.
“I know more than anyone else, and it’s private student data. Lawyers would say, ‘These are our clients.’ And I stood up and said, ‘These are my students.’ ”
He’s leaving education — he’s being succeeded by David Law — but the teacher in him can’t help keep worrying about students. The December before last, Carlson was about to deliver a speech when he was informed that there had been a shooting in Newtown, Conn., and that 20 children had been killed. In delivering the horrid news, Carlson talked about “how precious life is,” about his new granddaughter.
Carlson recently spent nearly three weeks in upstate New York, awaiting the birth of his second grandchild. When he talks about his new grandson, his face brims with hope.
He doesn’t want his grandchildren, or any other kids, to fall victim to school administrators who are married to what he calls the “corporate view of education,” an overemphasis on math and science testing.
Carlson notes that, when he was a youngster, academics did not motivate him nearly as much as the arts and sports.
“Is the goal what’s best for [the educators] or what’s best for the kid?” he asked. “If you give kids great teachers, that care about them …
“Our testing is too narrow. Work is not everything. A culture that doesn’t support the arts is not really a culture.”
He continues to worry about the safety of children.
“Kids are still being bullied,” he said. “The issue is alive, and we’re still working on it.”
He talked about how, in grade school, faculty can arrange times for transgender students to use restrooms, allowing them privacy. But as kids reach larger middle schools and high schools, issues surrounding gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students grow more complicated.
“The law is still vague,” he said. “What do you do with transgender kids when they want to play a sport?
“Is the student safe? Are they comfortable? Those are our main concerns.”