Tensions high following Somali protests in St. Cloud

Tensions high following Somali protests in St. Cloud

ST. CLOUD, Minn. - Tensions remain high in St. Cloud following a walkout and protest by Somali students alleging a pattern of bullying and discrimination against them.

Reports of a fight triggered a lockdown at St. Cloud Technical High School Friday, summoning police, sheriff's deputies and State Troopers to the same place more than 100 students and parents gathered on the lawn Wednesday to protest what they describe as an insufficient response by Tech teachers and administrators to their concerns.

Lt. Jeff Oxton of the St. Cloud Police Department says Friday's altercation never rose to a criminal level, and authorities stayed on hand mostly to keep the situation calm. He said school district officials will have to release details on how many students were involved in the incident and exactly what set things off.

Superintendent Willie Jett said administrators met with Tech student protesters throughout the day Thursday, one day after the protest. A larger group meeting is planned for Friday to further discuss their concerns, Jett said.

Meanwhile Thursday, the district's other high school, Apollo, was placed on containment for several hours. St. Cloud school district spokeswoman Tami DeLand described the procedure, which limits student movement in and out of the school, as a precautionary response to the Tech protests.

"The students yesterday felt that their voice needed to be heard. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, and I'm not saying protesting was the right thing to do," Jett said. "But it's our job … to make sure we listen. We would do that for any student that brings us an issue."

Somali leader and former St. Cloud City Council candidate Abdul Kulane was involved in a Thursday meeting between students and administration. He said the group didn't come to any agreement or make any concrete steps.

"It's troubling," he said. "Emotions are very high. ... Some of them were crying, some of them were in tears."

While the group didn't come to any solutions, he hoped that the incident could be a step toward change.

"I think it's an opportunity to create a dialogue," he said. "When people are emotional, they tend to be honest. ... We can't get away from it. ... We have to deal with emotions ... and have a concrete plan to solve this problem."

Minnesota Department of Education officials contacted the district Thursday in response to the protests, according to department spokesman Josh Collins. Collins said the department's new school safety center, which was created by an antibullying law enacted last year, contacted the district to see if it could prove assistance.

Representatives from the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations will be meeting Monday with students involved in the protest.

Executive Director Jaylani Hussein said the organization was contacted by a student and is in early stages of understanding the issues the students are raising.

Protesters said the catalyst for Wednesday's protest was a social media post that pictured a Somali Tech student in a wheelchair and implied she was affiliated with the Islamic State terrorist organization.

In the hours leading up to the protest, DeLand said social media posts and student rumors alerted school officials that it might occur.

Jett said Thursday that at least one student is being disciplined in connection with the social media post.

Jett said disciplinary measures haven't been taken against students who participated in the protest. He said such measures haven't been ruled out. But school officials' first response to the protesters was to hear their concerns and make sure all Tech students are safe, Jett said.

Seeking safety, respect

Jett said Tech officials didn't observe any warning signs to foreshadow Wednesday's events. The district tracks disciplinary data at each school, including suspensions and office referrals. Jett said he wasn't aware of a recent increase in either of those measures at Tech.

"Situations regarding race and culture are in the forefront at this moment. It's a hot topic," Jett said. "At times, can there be conflict? Definitely.

"But at the same time, it's a learning environment. We're making sure it's a safe environment."

Kulane said the protestors' goal was not to make everyone the same or believe the same things, but to support multiculturalism and have respect for each other.

"People don't have to agree with each other to respect each other," Kulane said. "I wanted it for us to think positively and think of ways to restore the relationship between communities."

"If you're not willing to expose yourself to uncomfortable issues of race, faith and class ... what kind of example is that? ... How are you going to deal with these people?" he said. "This is a learning opportunity for all kids."

The bully sometimes needs more help than the victim, Kulane said.

"He needs help to figure out, it's not OK to do this," he said. "Culturally, when we get offended, we actually sort out with the offender and the victim and normalize the relationship afterward."

He said he hopes to stop conflicts before they escalate to physical altercations to keep offenders out of the criminal justice system.

Kulane cited changes students involved in the protest would like to see, including structural changes that would help make the school inclusive.

That includes hiring counselors and teachers of color, addressing suspensions, refining the conflict resolution process and creating more opportunities for minority students.

These are issues that perpetuate the achievement gap, he said.

Kulane said the community has heard the school district say it couldn't find qualified counselors and teachers of color, and he calls that an excuse.

Policy changes

Tech has a school policy on student activism. It says students "have the right to express opinions or make suggestions to school administrators and faculty," provided they obey rules and teachers' instructions while doing so.

DeLand said the district's policy on school bullying requires school officials to investigate and document all allegations of bullying. The policy explicitly bans cyberbullying, defined as "bullying using technology or other electronic communication."

Kulane wants the Somali community to be included in school policymaking.

Ultimately, Kulane is optimistic and thinks incidents like this can unify a community.

"We cannot escape away, we cannot cover it up and we cannot walk it away," he said.

Other questions

Jett announced Tuesday that Tech interim principal Adam Holm would trade places with Apollo Principal Charlie Eisenreich next year, with Holm becoming Apollo principal. Eisenreich, a former Tech assistant principal and alumnus, will take the top post at Tech.

On Thursday, Jett said the decision had no relationship to anything that led to Wednesday's events.

"Adam Holm, he's done a wonderful job at Tech as interim principal," Jett said. "He will do a wonderful job at Apollo."

One arrest occurred at Tech during Wednesday's protest, but accounts differ on whether it was related to the demonstration.

Tech student Redwan Mahamed Shire, 19, was arrested by St. Cloud police on school premises during the protest on possible charges of disorderly conduct.

A news release from police says Shire pushed and threatened to assault a school security employee. The release describes the incident as not connected to the protest.

DeLand said she's not aware that Shire was attempting to join the protest. But Kulane said Shire was trying to leave the school to join the protest.

Kulane said the group of student protestors hoped to see charges against Shire dropped.


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