Rallies are not an everyday sight in New Ulm, but a recent Saturday afternoon gathering drew more than a hundred people to support LGBTQ+ students.
Demonstrators flew rainbow flags. Some held signs that read “Love Always Wins” and others waved at cars while drivers honked from the road.
Jerin Ostermann brought three of her children to the rally.
“I’m actually really happy to see all the little kids here,” she said. ”Because I’m hoping that the next generation can stand up more for themselves. I think that’s changing society, and that’s going to help these kids.”
Ostermann has three children who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. She homeschools them because she says the culture in the New Ulm school district isn’t welcoming to gay students.
“They’re not safe right now until we can get something changed, and this [incident] just brings out one of the whole reasons that we can’t send them yet,” she said.
She’s referring to a series of incidents that played out during New Ulm High School’s basketball season. The incidents came to light in a Star Tribune article, where an openly gay St. Peter basketball player accused a New Ulm player of repeatedly pinching him during games and of making homophobic comments.
St. Peter fans wore rainbow colors to a subsequent game with New Ulm in a show of support for their player.
Following that game, four New Ulm students allegedly shot water gel pellets at the St. Peter team bus as it was returning home. Police later cited those students with misdemeanors.
School officials said the incident was separate from the one involving the St. Peter basketball player. They condemned both situations.
New Ulm Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Bertrang apologized to the St. Peter player and his family for the incidents in an email sent out by the district and in a letter to the editor submitted to the New Ulm Journal in March.
In it, Bertrang wrote: “To the New Ulm Community, I say this: while we can and should be proud of our school, we will welcome and respect all opposing players, and we will hold our students to the highest standards of sportsmanship. We can and we must do better.”
He also said the New Ulm athlete had been disciplined. Bertrang told MPR News that the district has been working on equity training for staff to better respond to the needs of diverse students. He said the reported incidents only highlighted the need for that training even more.
“Our job is not to banish the students… hate the students… [it’s to] understand the mistake, and then how do we learn and move forward, understand that there are repercussions, the consequences, but the students are still getting care, they still need somebody to take care of them, and guide them,” he said.
Still, some New Ulm High School students criticized the administration and said the district should’ve taken a harder line.
Zach Ramirez is a New Ulm High School junior who identifies as gay and transgender. He said during a school assembly last month to address the incidents, the New Ulm student accused of making homophobic comments told students and staff that he had done nothing wrong.
Ramirez said the student should not have been given a platform and that the assembly centered attention on the accused rather than the people whom the actions affected.
Meanwhile, St. Peter administrators say they are working with the Minnesota High School League to address their concerns about student safety and well-being.
Superintendent Bill Gronseth says the district is weighing whether to drop New Ulm from its game schedule. But he says St. Peter is holding off on a decision to get a better sense of the actions New Ulm Public Schools are taking.
“Sometimes it’s an individual who needs some support and some new experiences to teach them a different way of being,” he said. “And sometimes whole communities have to come together to make a change in culture.”
In February, the Minnesota State High School League announced an initiative to improve behavior at high school events. The League says plans are underway to develop a model code of conduct and tools to help districts reduce bullying, harassment and intolerance.
Back at the Saturday rally, Jerin Ostermann said that the public incidents and how some responded to them was not unusual. She expressed the lack of support she had when sharing what happened to some of her kids while in school, and feeling the need to remove them for their safety.
“A lot of us grew up in the 90s in the 80s and most of us not in very safe environments,” Ostermann said. “So we’re hoping that our kids can actually have a safe environment to grow up [in]. And now, it’s not 1985 anymore.”
While Ostermann lived in town for 13 years, she still believed that the community showing up to the unity rally was a sign that there are many who wanted to make it a point that hate doesn’t belong in New Ulm. She’s hopeful that with enough attention called to what happened and definitive changes are made, that she might be able to send her kids to school.
“We can actually embrace our children and love them as they are,” she added. “But we have to also embrace the community and show them that we can teach everybody the same thing.”
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