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'When are we actually going to do something about it?': New Prague community pleads with school to deal with racism

School Superintendent Tim Dittberner said racist incidents at the district have increased over the last few years.

NEW PRAGUE, Minn. — In a New Prague Area Schools school board meeting Monday night, members of the community joined the board to share their concerns about recent racist incidents involving students, and ask what steps the administration is taking to address them.

School Superintendent Tim Dittberner said racist incidents at the district have increased over the last few years, but officials are making plans to prevent future acts of racism.

"I apologize on behalf of the school community for what has happened, and while we take all reports of bullying and harassment seriously, and follow up by investigating them and taking appropriate action according to district policy and state law, we still need to be proactive and educate to prevent further incidents," Dittberner said.

The promise to take action against discrimination stems most recently from two separate incidents at sporting events, in which student athletes from visiting schools were subjected to racist comments from students and adults from New Prague. Both incidents occurred Feb. 15 — one at a girls basketball game against Robbinsdale Cooper High School, and the other at a boys hockey game against St. Louis Park.

Robbinsdale Area Schools and St. Louis Park districts have since announced they will not be competing with New Prague until further notice.

Dittberner said at the meeting that an investigation into the girls basketball incident is nearing completion, and that the district will release a public statement at its conclusion. But he said despite the outcome of the investigation, New Prague "does not and will not tolerate hate speech and racism" in its schools.

"It's up to us as school leaders to set expectations," Dittberner said. "Hate, disrespect and intimidation have no place within our schools. Every student should feel welcome."

He added, "We can't sit still and complain, and we can't make excuses. We simply must do better."

Dittberner said school administrators have held listening sessions with students and that the district is ready to take action, laying out a three-step plan he called "thoughtful and strategic" to ensure the district becomes "free of hate speech."

The first step of the district's plan is to put together a group of students, staff, parents and members of the larger community to create a "school district climate task force." Dittberner said the students involved will represent "multiple identity groups" in the schools, who will "back up their words with concrete actions."

The second step involves identifying more resources and development for staff to plan, prepare and implement best practices to "address and eliminate harmful behaviors" in an attempt to support students and others who have been impacted by those harmful behaviors.

The final step, Dittberner says, will allow the administration to work with student leaders in athletics, fine arts and other activities to raise awareness of issues like appropriate conduct, bullying, race and gender, among others.

"I believe our students and staff are ready to support change and cultivate an environment free of racism and hate speech," he said.

The district also plans to collaborate with the St. Louis Park school district — "when the time is right" — to lead the change they're hoping to see together at the state level

Also at the meeting, 10th-grader Roman Griffin, a Black student at New Prague High School, said he and fellow students are ready to see that change.

"These issues are ongoing and have been occurring for years," he said. "The looks on everyone's faces here are not concerning enough for me, honestly, because kids are going home, having to deal with these issues."

He went on, "It's affecting their learning, their livelihood, their emotional stability and more. And people are still dealing with it. When are we actually going to do something about it?"

Other Minnesota schools have also faced fallout from racist incidents recently, prompting the Minnesota State High School League to release a statement last week.

It said in part:

"Racial, religious, or sexual harassment is simply unacceptable in our schools. The goal of safe, supportive school environments is of paramount importance," the MSHSL said in a statement. "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."

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