SPENCER — Controversial comments made by Spencer-Van Etten School Board President Don Johnson during the board’s June 11 meeting have come to light — and some members of the public found them to be insensitive and racist.

The comments, which were recently brought to the attention of the Morning Times, were made in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement while discussing plans for the graduation ceremony. They can be heard around the 37 minute mark of the virtual meeting, which is viewable on the district’s website.

“I think I have a way around all that — if we just call it a Black Lives Matter rally, we should be good,” Johnson said. “Everyone can go. Call it a protest. We should be good.”

“I know no one is going to comment on that. I appreciate that.” he said immediately after. “It’ll wind up in the print someplace””

Spencer-Van Etten held three separate graduation ceremonies in order to comply with social distancing and crowd capacity guidelines set by Gov. Andrew Cuomo due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, large protests against police brutality were being held across the country.

The protests were held in response to the death of George Floyd, who was killed when a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25, several weeks before the school board meeting.

While many of the protests remained peaceful, others developed into riots that caused extensive damage, especially in urban areas.

The Black Lives Matter movement has remained at the national forefront since then, and has been subject to controversy regarding its ideologies.

Protestors have been referred to as terrorists by many people across the country, including residents of the Valley (see the September 8 edition of Soundoff).

Conspiracy theories have also developed about the Black Lives Matter movement, one of which claimed that real estate mogul George Soros paid protestors to incite riots.

Following the June 11 meeting, a member of the school community reached out to Superintendent Diahann Hesler to express her displeasure with Johnson’s comments.

“I am very disappointed that Mr. Johnson would think that no one in that room would mind such a comment, and second because in this primarily white community, he is so insensitive to the importance of diversity, when students of various color and ethnicity are already at a disadvantage at Spencer-Van Etten,” the correspondence said.

Hesler responded, saying that she would notify the school board about the issue, and also apologized on the board’s behalf for “that comment and the lack of sensitivity to what is and has been going on in our world for a very long time.”

Johnson responded by posting his own apology on the district website.

“I understand there are some in the community that were offended by my comment about disguising our graduation ceremony for seniors as a Black Lives Matter protest,” his statement said. “My comment came out of frustration with the seemingly random guidelines that prevent our community celebrating the seniors together and with family and friends.”

Johnson continued by saying the statement was not meant in a derogatory manner.

“There was no derogatory comment about Black Lives Matter or anyone associated with the organization,” he said. “I apologize that it was misunderstood or not clear when I made that statement. I assure you that the board and myself are concerned for all members of our community.”

The apology was removed from the website approximately 24 hours after it was posted.

However, Johnson also sent a personal apology which echoed the message that the comments were made out of frustration rather than hate.

“Despite the guidelines of social distancing and people congregating; protests, specifically Black Lives Matter, are able to gather,” his letter said. “My comment at the board had nothing to do with BLM, other than an example of large numbers of people gathering together in defiance of social distancing.”

Johnson went on to say “I don’t think you know me, other than what someone may have told you.”

“I appreciate diversity. I think if you know our school board, we are pretty diverse,” he added. “We have visually obvious diversity; but also political affiliation, mindset, work history, world view, education, family structure, economic, religious, and others.”

He also touched on his own experiences in diverse environments, such as nearly three decades in the military, various friendships and his education at an inner city school in West Dover, Delaware, where he said he “got a glimpse of what it is like to be a minority.”

It was not until after those apologies were issued that a separate individual called the Morning Times office with information about the comments and where to see them.

When asked about the comments at the August 27 board meeting — the first in several months that was held in person — Johnson maintained that they were made out of frustration.

“I didn’t make a comment about Black Lives Matter. I made a comment about the graduation ceremony,” he said. “I was very frustrated with the (ambiguity) and all these willy-nilly restrictions that are being put out about who can meet — no more than 10, no more than 50, no more than 100.”

“All it was was the protests that were happening recently and my frustration,” he added. “I’m concerned about graduation being able to occur with all the students, all the teachers, all the parents, all at once instead of being divided and separated the way it was.”

He went on to say that the district’s plan and the ceremonies that followed were well-executed, given the circumstances.

Hesler declined to provide additional comments on the situation.

Ryan Sharp can be reached at rsharp@morning-times.com or (570) 888-9643 ext. 231. Follow @RealRyanSharp on Twitter.

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