Crookston School Board hears from parents about proposed speaker

Jess Bengtson
Crookston Times

    During the public forum portion of the Crookston School Board meeting this week, Melanie Lessard proposed bringing another national speaker to the high school to talk to students about mental health. In 2019 she led the effort to bring Marc Mero to speak at CHS and his visit allegedly saved the life of a female student who talked about committing suicide.

    This time Lessard said she’s planning on and paying for motivational speaker Nathan Harmon to speak to students and others in the community at what could be multiple sessions. Harmon’s message is “Your Life Speaks” and details overcoming drug addiction, suicidal thoughts and a self destructive lifestyle.

    Lessard has used the annual “Miss Tootsie” pageant during the Ox Cart Days festival to raise funds for school speakers and planned to use August 2021’s proceeds towards Harmon’s visit. She mentioned that others have contributed as well.  

    During her presentation to the school board, Lessard provided statistics on the rise of depression and suicide, and referred to recent suicides in the community when suggesting the timing for the speaker’s visit. She said she plans on bringing Harmon to Crookston whether the board approves or not.

    “I have personally not had anyone close to me commit suicide, but my daughters have; we need to get Nathan into the school district,” she explained. “When he (Nathan Harmon) found out about the recent suicides in the community he said he would take out time from his schedule. We plan to have him at the Crookston Inn as well, and UMC said they’d like to have him there as well.”

    Later, during the Superintendent’s report, Jeremy Olson said he’d first like to use his time to respond to Lessard’s request and said he agrees COVID and the recent community tragedies have been hard on kids (students.) Olson mentioned the district has been working in the background to increase their mental health support with increases at Washington Elementary plus being consistent at the high school.

    “Our strategy is to work closely with Alluma, we believe mental health supports are ideal,” he answered. “They have relationships with the kids and they’re ongoing.”

    Olson added that he was not opposed to Lessard’s speaker proposal, but felt it would work better for the district in the spring time suggesting somewhere between prom and graduation.

    After his response to Lessard, two other members of the audience asked the board if they could speak at the podium even though it was not during the public forum dedicated time at the beginning of each regular meeting. Kate Overgaard, a district parent, told the board she was in support of bringing a speaker in “sooner rather than later” and referred to the recent tragedies in her speech.

    “It’s better to handle something that’s fresh like this,” she stated. “Waiting until spring time, we’re just holding off on it for nothing. Why wait for this?”

    Overgaard added that Alluma (formerly Northwestern Mental Health Center) “can’t handle the city of Crookston alone” with their mental health providers and they’re “struggling to keep afloat to add more people.” She rhetorically asked the board “what if it was your kid or your kid’s friend; what would you do?”

    “We already have the money raised, why would you wait?” she said before sitting down.

    Then, a senior at Crookston High School named Emily came to the microphone and said she sees students in the halls every day and can “see sadness in their faces” and can “hear people in the halls say they’re not happy.”

    “It’s scary to feel weak, it’s scary to feel vulnerable,” she continued. “I want to do a good thing and bring a speaker in and tell the kids they’re not alone. There’s been three deaths in this town, it’s something we need to look at, kids are starting to notice that.”

    Note: The Times was informed Tuesday that Alluma and Crookston High School have been working with Polk County Social Services and the H.O.P.E. Coalition on a community walk event “E-Race Stigma” planned for October 9 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. starting at the high school. The event is based on community hope and healing, and raising awareness for suicide prevention, said an Alluma employee. No registration is required for the free public event.

LESSARD REACTION

    The Times reached out to Melanie Lessard after the School Board meeting to see if she is still planning to bring Nathan Harmon to Crookston even if the school district does not host the speaker and to see if she has met separately with Superintendent Olson or other district leaders to discuss the matter. Lessard said she had spoke over email with CHS principal Nicki Martinez in July about bringing Harmon to speak at the high school, but back then was told that the school was leaning towards a spring event. After the recent community tragedies Lessard said she again reached out to Martinez and was told they would pass on the fall event, but were looking more towards spring as the need was greater with prom and graduation possibly planning a "CARE" week with awareness for making healthy choices. Lessard then came in front of the school board as she was told to do in 2019 when she proposed an event with Marc Mero.

    “I had addressed this with (Jeremy) Olson and former principal Eric Bubna in 2019 when Marc Mero was here and that my goal was to have this a yearly event in the fall,” Lessard explained. “He was aware of this on the 16th when I spoke at the board meeting of a list of possible dates, but I did not reach out to him personally which maybe I should have.”

    “My plan is to host this (speaker Nathan Harmon) on November 3 with a few times and locations,” she added. “Of course I want the school to be involved and for it to be at the school as this is for our youth. With it at the school we can help the students right there. I’m afraid that if it’s not at the school the students will not be able to leave school to attend and if they do leave they won’t attend or possibly not return to school.”

    Lessard said her goal is to save Crookston’s youth as “they are our future and if we don’t listen to them now when they are hurting then do we expect them to reach out later?”

    “There are so many open wounds and these kids need to be heard,” she continued. “I know when Marc came I personally saved a young gal that morning. Marc said after he got back from breakfast that he had over 50 emails from students telling him how much they appreciated what he said. That they felt he heard their cries. The students said that life will change for the better for them as he gave them the tools they needed.”

    Lessard said she is continuing on with plans for Harmon’s visit for November with multiple sessions to allow for social distancing and masks if necessary. Whether the events are held at the Crookston Inn and University of Minnesota Crookston only is up to the school district, but she would like to open up the morning sessions to area schools if they wanted their students to attend.

    "Opening to other schools would only be if Crookston High School does not host it there," Lessard continued. "If at the Crookston Inn, it would be open to other schools to attend as well. Once again, I am hoping the school will open the two morning sessions just to Crookston High School students. By having two sessions, the grades can be divided, so smaller groups, social distanced and mask if this will help with their growing concerns for COVID. I am not by any means trying to over-step, so if I have offended anyone in the process, that is not what I meant, and I am truly sorry for that. I will, however, work with the school in the future to ensure that this event is held at the school during September which is Suicide Prevention Month as long as I have my event to support this. Sitting down with them is what needs to be done and not to just assume they will go with what I say or have planned. That is not how any of this should have gone and once again I apologize for that. Stay tuned for updates and flyers of the event."

Melanie Lessard speaks at the school board meeting
Kate Overgaard speaks at the school board meeting