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'We have to change our response because it hasn't been good enough': New Prague superintendent addresses racist incidents

New Prague Superintendent Tim Dittberner says the district is taking action following two separate racist incidents linked to sports -- but he says games will go on.

MINNEAPOLIS — The superintendent of New Prague is addressing a week of fallout after racist comments and taunts at school sporting events directed at athletes from two other Minnesota schools.

On Feb. 15, New Prague boys hockey players reportedly taunted a player from St. Louis Park, using racist language. On the same day during a girls basketball game between New Prague and Robbinsdale Cooper, people in the stands reportedly made monkey noises at several black players.

Superintendent Tim Dittberner spoke to KARE11 reporter Kent Erdahl on Thursday to talk about the incidents, and what actions have been taken by the district to address them.

Kent Erdahl: "What do you know so far about these two incidents and what action has been taken?" 

Tim Dittberner: "The first incident was St Louis Park, at the hockey game. An investigation was quickly done, appropriate actions were taken with the players involved, and so there has been consequences with that. There is still, with Cooper High School (girls basketball), an open investigation right now. We have a third party still conducting interviews today. We're hoping it gets done by tomorrow (Friday)."

Erdahl: "One involves players, the other allegedly involves students or maybe others in the stands. Is that why it more complicated?"

Dittberner: "Yeah, it had nothing to do with the players or coaches on the court for either team."

Erdahl: "We've now seen both schools taking action that, frankly, we don't see very often in Minnesota, saying they're not going to play your teams. What's your reaction to that and what's now being done in response to that?" 

Dittberner: "I've talked to Dr. (Astein) Osei, the superintendent from St Louis Park. We connected, we had a great conversation. I totally understand where they're coming from. Their first goal right now, since the incident - which we take 100% responsibility for - they need to keep their kids safe, in a safe environment, and they just don't think, at this time, it's best for them, which I can have empathy for. But we also talked that, moving forward, we've got to turn this negative into a positive. You know, we talk about consequences that have already been done, but we also have to repair the harm."

Erdahl: "You talk about repairing harm and those schools needing to keep their players safe. Have you considered suspending athletics?"

Dittberner: "No, we have not, but we have reached out to other school districts."

Erdahl: "How do you reassure schools right now, that they have a safe environment to be competing in?" 

Dittberner: "We've talked to our student athletes, our principal did a great job addressing the entire student body. We're having listening sessions and we're in communication with them and I think it's something that, what's happened we denounce, but we're going to move forward and improve the situation that we're in."

Erdahl: "How deep do you think this goes? How prevalent is this beyond sports at New Prague and how much of the problem needs to be addressed on a wider level?"

Dittberner: "You're right, it's not just in a sporting environment, but I think, just like other schools, we have these issues and we have to deal with them. What we've been doing so far, we have to change our response because it hasn't been good enough. It's going to be a process, but you're right, it's not just in sports, it's district-wide too."

Erdahl: "Are there plans to bring the entire community into those discussions?" 

Dittberner: "Yeah, that is definitely a possibility. We've talked about community discussions too."

Erdahl: "Robbinsdale, in their statement, said that they would like to see the Minnesota State High School League take this seriously. Have you had any discussions with the high school league?"

Dittberner: "Yes, we've had conversations with Erich Martens, the director (of MSHSL), who has reached out to us. You know, I think the High School League will want us to be able to communicate and work together, bring both sides together. This stuff is going all over the state and all over the nation right now, the problems we're having with race and equity and stuff like that, and just the lack of respect, that we're going to have to figure something out. I think if we can do something together, we can make a change for the better for our state, for the High School League and beyond."

The Minnesota State High School League has not responded to multiple KARE 11 requests about the incidents at New Prague, but on Thursday, the MSHSL joined the Minnesota School Boards Association and several other groups, in sending the following memo to Minnesota Schools:

Recently students, schools and communities have experienced racist events that tell us we as school leaders have more work to do. Mistreatment of anyone on any basis is not only intolerable, it is something we, as educational leaders, unequivocally condemn.  Racial, religious, or sexual harassment is simply unacceptable in our schools. The goal of safe, supportive school environments is of paramount importance. It is essential that every effort be made, and action is taken to ensure that all students have a safe environment in which to learn and participate in activities.  In addition, victims of racist words or actions need support. Together, we commit to making every effort to ensure that students have a safe environment in which to learn and participate in activities. 

To that end, the education organizations listed below will launch an initiative to improve behavior at high school events as well as schools in general. With the assistance of professional partners, this initiative will include:

•    Organize student groups to develop a model code of conduct for all schools. Once developed, this code will be distributed to school boards, administrators, coaches, parents, and students statewide. The code will cover all aspects of participation in activities as well as at school.  It will include activities, athletes, spectators, staff, students, and parents.

•    Convene a student conference, through the MSHSL, MASSP and MNIAA, involving student leaders involved in athletics, fine arts and other activities to raise awareness about student conduct, bullying, gender, race and other issues and assist in the development of tools for all schools.

•    Identify and provide resources to assist schools and administrators in planning, preparing and implementing best practices to address and eliminate these harmful behaviors and support of students and others who have been impacted.

Schools will continue to promote and enforce existing conduct rules through district policies prohibiting racial harassment of any kind and through Bylaw 209 of MSHSL Rules that expressly prohibits racial, sexual, or religious harassment.  Violations of the policy require the loss of student eligibility.

The organizations listed will continue to work directly with our schools in addressing these behaviors and will keep schools and interested parties informed of progress in these efforts.  Together we will make a difference.

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