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Union school board member faces public backlash after email rant to parent
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Union school board member faces public backlash after email rant to parent

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A Union Public School board member is facing a backlash after he replied to a parent email with a rant about “the deadly Chinese virus.”

Adam and Michelle Palmer, parents of three Union students, said they emailed each school board member individually to advocate for distance learning ahead of the board’s Monday vote on whether to adopt such a plan for the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.

After expressing appreciation for the board’s leadership since the beginning of the pandemic, the Palmers’ email states in part: “The more we learn about the coronavirus and about the trends of COVID infections rising in Oklahoma, the more we are concerned about the safety and feasibility of moving to in-person instruction while a virus that is largely airborne gains a second wind.

“We chose in-person instruction because we truly believe it is the best way to learn ... And yet, as other area schools make the difficult decision to go to distance learning for the first nine weeks, we would like to strongly encourage the Board to follow suit, for the safety of our students, faculty, and staff.”

They signed the email with both of their names but received a rant addressed only to Adam Palmer in response from Jeff Bennett, a school board member since 2006, that referred to COVID-19 as the “deadly Chinese virus.”

“Hello Adam; Thanks for your opinion. I’m not convinced anyone, certainly not the experts, most defiantly not me know much about covid,” Bennett began before launching into a rambling paragraph riddled with grammar and spelling mistakes and hints of coronavirus conspiracy theories.

“I certainly appreciate the trust you place in myself and the board but there is no right decision, certainly not for everyone ...” he said in closing.

Although the Palmers still don’t quite understand the message Bennett was trying to convey, Michelle Palmer said he got some points across.

“What he did convey was racism and sexism and conspiracy theories,” she told the Tulsa World.

Both posted Bennett’s response to social media, and they later said they felt a moral obligation to do so.

“The rhetoric that he chose to use says a lot about the mindset that he is carrying into what is a very important decision to be made by the board,” Adam Palmer said.

The post quickly spread among Union parents and the district soon put out a statement distancing itself from Bennett.

“We received confirmation from Mr. Bennett that the email was indeed from him,” the statement read. “Please know that as an elected school board member, the thoughts and opinions expressed in his letter to this Union parent are his own and do not reflect the thinking of the leadership of Union Public Schools. We have a very serious decision to make on Monday regarding whether we will have school in-person or via distance learning in the fall. We will make the best decision possible based on the advice of public health experts and the best available information.”

Beyond the vote, Michelle Palmer said she’d like a call for Bennett’s resignation. Seventy-nine percent of Union students are Black, Indigenous or people of color or mixed race, she said.

“To have somebody who so casually drops racist rhetoric in response to an email from a concerned parent tells me Mr. Bennett is not interested in representing the total diversity of the Union school district,” Adam Palmer said.

In the meeting Monday, Union Superintendent Kirt Hartzler will recommend starting the upcoming year through distance learning, the World reported Sunday. If approved, Union will become the latest district in the Tulsa metro to forgo its plans for in-person instruction.

The board is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Monday at the Education Service Center, 8506 E. 61st St. However, the board will vote to recess the meeting until 7:30 p.m. and move the location to the Union Performing Arts Center, 6636 S. Mingo Road, due to the anticipated high number of spectators.

The Tulsa World left a voicemail for the phone number listed on the district’s website as Jeff Bennett’s seeking comment. It was not returned Sunday afternoon.

Featured gallery: 20 quotes from Oklahoma educators on going back to school during a pandemic

Kelsy Schlotthauer

918-581-8455

kelsy.schlotthauer

@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @K_Schlott

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Staff Writer

I write because I care about people, policing and peace, and I believe the most informed people make the best decisions. I joined the Tulsa World in 2019 and currently cover breaking news. Phone: 918-581-8455

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