Early one April evening, a mother stands before a microphone on stage at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minn. Turning to Gov. Jesse Ventura and Education Commissioner Christine Jax, who are seated a few feet away, she tells a troubling story.
"My son punched a boy at school and gave him a black eye," Daria Fritz says. "I didn't find out about it until the next day. The school didn't call." Although her son eventually told her about the incident and they discussed it, she remains critical of school officials for not disciplining him.
Governor Ventura nods understandingly. "We've been very lax in much of our discipline in schools," he says. "It's very important for us to take responsibility as adults." Adds Mrs. Jax, "I don't think as a society we can expect our children not to grow up violent when that is what they see every day."
The exchange represents an unusual experiment in gubernatorial politics - a two-hour parent panel sponsored by the Minnesota Parenting Association and Minnesota Parent magazine. Ventura and Jax have come here tonight to listen to parents discuss issues such as affordable child care, education, and violence in schools. As babies and toddlers wriggle in parents' laps and young children romp noisily in the aisles, mothers and fathers describe their concerns.
A single father, Hank Keshi, explains that without a child-care subsidy, he will be forced to quit his job because he can't afford child care. And Rick and Isabel Chanselor, whose five children accompany them on stage, tell how hard it is as working parents to remain involved in several schools.
But it is the discussion on school violence that becomes even more relevant in light of the school shootings in Colorado just a week later. It reveals that behind the headlines about tragedies like this, students and parents face myriad smaller concerns about safety. Even riding the school bus, some say, can cause anxiety because of rough-housing.
Whatever form school violence takes, Mrs. Fritz offers one solution. "We need to start teaching our children how to work through conflict," she says. "If we haven't done that, we get these teenagers who are floundering. We are not teaching our children to have respect for each other and for adults. Respect is very important."
In a conversation in the lobby after the forum, Mr. Chanselor describes other types of school conflict. "Teachers aren't controlling students well on the playground," he says. "There's no reason for violence on the playground."
Yet he also offers an example of how zero-tolerance policies to prevent violence can sometimes cause school officials to overreact. One of the couple's sons took a half-inch plastic knife from a Ninja Turtle action figure to school. The teacher called it a weapon, and the boy spent half a day in the principal's office. "There are different levels of getting into trouble and different levels of dealing with it," says Chanselor.
Although he would have liked more time at the forum to discuss these and other problems in greater depth, Chanselor lauds the idea of this kind of gathering. "It shows a united public support for a lot of issues, instead of the normal channels the governor would get support from, where information is filtered out," he says.
For her part, Jax admits later that she was initially unsure about the event. "At first I thought, I hope this isn't a waste of my time, with people just coming up and complaining about their personal lives," she says. But she considers the forum a success. "I really believe that this is how some solutions are going to be found - not by me sitting in staff meetings. A lot of policy is developed by people just hypothesizing about what things are like." This forum, she says, represents reality.
Ventura, who has just completed his first 100 days in office, still has a blank slate to fill. If he succeeds in improving public education, in funding child-care programs, and in reducing school violence, these and other parents will applaud. If he doesn't, no one can say he never knew what was on the minds of at least one group of mothers and fathers on a springtime evening early in his political career.