Sioux Parr

Sioux Parr makes a statement in support of Denison High School government teacher Crystal Holt at Tuesday evening's school board meeting.  Photo by Gordon Wolf

Following is a sampling of the comments made during the public forum at the Denison School Board meeting on Tuesday evening. 

For about 80 minutes on Tuesday evening, the Denison School Board and school administration listened to people speak to the character of Crystal Holt.

Holt, a high school government teacher, was placed on paid administrative leave on Sunday after saying the “N” word, first in her classroom on Thursday morning when explaining the context of a murder trial that involved hate crime and racist elements, and second, on the following day when explaining to a class of English students why she had used the word on Thursday.

It was the use of the word in the second instance that a number of students said sparked a walk-out and rally outside the school on Tuesday morning.

Click the link below to read the story about the rally.

Click this link to read an interview with Crystal Holt.

A number of the speakers said they knew Holt through church at Grace E Free Church in Denison. They attested to a behavior that had no elements of racism and described a person who is dedicated to helping others.

Some conjectured that Holt had been baited into saying the "n" word or that it was political motivated because she is married to State Rep. Steve Holt.

“What I’ve read on the internet today about what this is all about – I’m dead set against racism but I think there’s a difference in context in using a word in a teaching moment than using the word aimed at somebody,” said Gary Thomsen, of Dow City.

“It seems like today’s world, everybody gets offended about every little thing. I get offended by things, and you just choke them down. Now, I know when you’re facing that every day in certain areas…,” he broke off that sentence to talk about living in Omaha when race riots occurred in the middle to late 1960s and said it got pretty scary.

He pointed out the word was used in a teaching moment.

“She didn’t call anybody this,” he said. “She had no ill intent, no derogatory idea of hurting somebody with it.

“And I just have the have the sneaking suspicion that this whole deal is not about Crystal but about who she’s married to and the 2020 election,” Thomsen continued.

Some members of the audience responded to this statement with echoes of affirmation and a smattering of applause, but also the epithet “bull s...” came from a person standing with others in a corner of the library.

Rhonda MacGregor, who team teaches with Holt at the church, said she has learned much from her about being able to reach out to other kids, adding it doesn’t matter to Holt who the child is, the child’s economic background or the color of skin.

“What I have learned from her is how to have compassion and how to reach out and how to bring a story or lesson to life,” MacGregor added.

Former students spoke about how Holt challenged them, something they did not like at the time but now appreciate.

Beth Vogt, a 2004 Denison High School graduate, said she spent a vast majority of her time in high school in Holt’s classes. She said she was in Holt’s seminar (study hall) all four years and took every class that she offered.

She said Holt is a long-time teacher who has held students accountable for their academic performance, their attitudes and their actions.

“She has long been called foul 4-letter word names by students. I was one of those and I probably called her a 4-letter name to her face once or twice in my high school career,” Vogt said.

She offered that students are reacting because they don’t want to be held accountable for their mediocrity.

“Mrs. Holt expects more of a student in one week’s worth of classes than most teachers expect in a quarter’s worth of classes,” she said. “It’s that the kids truly dislike about her, and that’s on them and not on her. They hate, as I hated as a teenager, that she demands better from them and she makes things challenging.”

Vogt, who has served as chair of the Crawford County Democratic Party and at one time worked at Sen. Tom Harkin’s office in Sioux City, said she and Holt could not be politically further apart, but then offered that she wouldn’t be the person she is today if Holt had not been in her life when she was a teenager.

“If you want to fight racism, start with your friends who call one another the ‘n’ word like it’s a special pet name,” Vogt said.

“It is time for our school to take a look at racial issues,” she concluded. “It’s been time for a long time but not at the cost of a wonderful teacher who likely should be helping to spearhead those very conversations.”

Some of the speakers were recent high school graduates, like Marilyn Rodriguez, now a college student, who told how the Holts took her in during her senior year when she was having difficulties and made her a part of their family.

Many said they found no fault in Holt’s use of the word in the context of explaining a lesson and asked that she be allowed to teach again as soon as possible.

Retired teacher Collette Huntley said when a student asks a question, the teacher’s first impulse is to answer that question to the best of their ability and it is her understanding that’s what Holt was trying to accomplish.

Sioux Parr said she had four children who were taught by Holt. She added that her last son graduated last year and the only reason is because Holt spent time with him.

“She worked with him and worked with him, yet held him accountable,” Parr said.

That her son was black never came into play for Holt, she added.

Parr said that her son struggled with school because students called him derogatory names, what the kids thought was in fun but it wasn’t fun to her son.

“But the word is used a lot and it’s vile and it’s ugly and I think it’s got more hate than any other word, but I think she (Holt) was using it in a teaching moment,” Parr said.

Many comments were followed by applause from those filing the school library.

Others reminded the administration that its decision must be based on facts, not on prejudice or on vendettas.

A number of speakers said that the “N” word should never be said, whether in or out of an academic setting.

Kevin Richardson said his family has dealt with racism for years. He said when his son, who is black, hit the school system years ago as kindergarten student at Schleswig, he faced racial language. He said he made multiple complaints to school administration and saw things get swept under the rug.

Richardson said he believes Holt did not have the intention for the use of the word to be derogatory or harmful but was trying to educate. But he said the situation needs to be a wake-up call for the board.

His son, Jordan, also spoke and asked that the board take a look and think of what the repercussions might be when trying to teach, and second, when other people are using these words. He said a lot of times a blind eye has been turned to it.

“Please think or go through this with a lot of caution about how you think about handling this and also maybe look at not turning a blind eye to some of the things that happen,” he encouraged.

Noah Fredericksen, a senior, was among the students who were in Holt’s first-block government class on Thursday. He spoke against the negative social media posts about Holt but said the word she used should never be said.

“We were talking about what this person (Kenneth Junior French, who was on trial for murder) said, should he be given the death penalty or not. Mrs. Holt was not currently in our conversation at the time. Sure, she was there in our classroom but she wasn’t a part of our conversation,” Fredericksen said. “When we said what we were trying to say, when we were trying to discuss what we were trying to discuss, that’s when she interjected and said this is what he said.

“Now her intentions might have been nothing but good. The word should not be used in any context,” said Fredericksen. “It should not be used in context or out of context because the weight of that word carries a lot more than just that word. It carries the meaning of everything that’s happened behind that word in the past.”

He continued that the death threats and slander that followed and were directed toward Holt are unacceptable.

“Because what we need to know is that Mrs. Holt is a person too. She has feelings. She has a family. What we’ve heard from all these people, she has done so much for this community as evidenced by what people have said so far,” Fredericksen said.

He spoke out against those who are using the situation as an excuse to make Holt look like a bad person because she said the word, but continued that the word should not have been used.

The investigation pertaining to Holt was not on Tuesday night’s agenda. Board President Kris Rowedder said it should be completed soon but did not give a specified timeline.

After the school board meeting, Superintendent Mike Pardun said that the investigation is continuing and that the administration (he and high school principal Dave Wiebers) have some more students to interview.

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