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After Trump yearbook flap, school district forces teacher to give up adviser post

Comments from a Brainerd High School student in the 2016-2017 yearbook using harsh words towards U.S. President Donald Trump has caused a stir in the community. The photo illustration shows the page that appeared. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD, Minn. — The adviser for the Brainerd High School yearbook will be suspended and removed from his position after violent comments about President Donald Trump were published in this year's edition.

Joe Wagner will serve his five-day suspension during the 2017-18 school year, according to a disciplinary letter sent from Superintendent Laine Larson to Wagner. The district hired Rupp, Anderson, Squires & Waldspurger, a law firm in Minneapolis, to conduct an investigation into how the comments made it into the yearbook.

The investigation was completed in mid-June, with portions of the report now made public. Larson's letter to Wagner summarizes many of the highlights of the report.

The investigation didn't reveal evidence Wagner advanced his own political views in the yearbook, Larson wrote, but did reveal concerns with how much supervision he used over students involved with producing it.

The student's violent comment about Trump violates district policy applying to school-sponsored student publications, Larson wrote. The policy prohibits these publications from expressing or advocating acts of violence.

On page 11 of the yearbook students shared their feelings about Trump. One of the four commenters, a sophomore, had harsh words for the president.

"I would like to behead him," the student said. "I do not like him."

On page 35, the yearbook shared comments from students who were asked whether they vote for Trump or 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Two students replied they wouldn't vote for either candidate, with harsh words for both candidates. Another student preferred Clinton, "because Trump is racist, sexist and basically OK with rapists."

Larson gave serious consideration to firing Wagner, she wrote, but chose not to, because Wagner is a long-term employee with no prior discipline or history of engaging in similar behavior. He also has shown remorse for his actions, she wrote.

"However, my decision not to pursue discharge should not be misconstrued as being tolerant of your conduct," Larson wrote.

During Wagner's interview as part of the investigation, he said he made a final review of the yearbook before submitting it to Jostens for printing. As for the political quotes, Wagner said he did not review quotes for content, but instead looked for page design and typographical issues.

"You admitted that you exercised poor professional judgment by not adequately reviewing the content of the yearbook," Larson wrote.

The investigation revealed issues with the grading rubric Wagner used for students in the yearbook class. The provided rubric indicates students are graded on the accuracy and factuality of their stories and captions. Wagner admitted he did not review page 11 of the yearbook, but still gave a student a grade for working on the page.

"Based on the weight of the evidence, the district concludes that you willfully neglected your duties and issued a grade without any legitimate basis," Larson wrote.

Wagner did not require students to maintain or submit any record verifying the accuracy of quotes or polls used in the yearbook. He also did not require students to maintain or submit a record verifying they had obtained a student's consent to using their quotes in the yearbook.

"During the investigation, at least one student stated that she did not know her information would be included in the yearbook," Larson wrote.

The investigation revealed Wagner did not prepare appropriate lesson plans for the yearbook class and gave students too much discretion to determine what went in the yearbook, Larson wrote. He also did not give the class clear expectations for what content would be appropriate for the yearbook.

"Your willful neglect of your duties and your failure to exercise appropriate judgment have had serious consequences," Larson wrote.

Larson provided Wagner with 10 directives to follow, including helping the district transition the yearbook adviser role to another person, showing sound professional judgement and not neglecting any of his job duties. He must also adopt new grading practices for his classes, establish clear expectations for his students, create detailed lesson plans for his classes and attend a training session on data privacy issues relevant to a school district.

The yearbook comments harmed the district's reputation, Larson wrote, but more importantly, brought social media attention, in the form of criticism and threatening language, to students quoted on the pages in question.

"As an educator, your actions must at all times be centered on the well-being of students," Larson wrote. "In this case, you not only neglected your job duties but also the interests of students in the district. This is unacceptable."

Spenser Bickett

Spenser Bickett covers the Brainerd City Council and education. A native of the Twin Cities, Bickett attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he majored in journalism with a minor in political science. After graduation, he worked for the International Falls Journal as a staff writer before coming to Brainerd.

 
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