Washburn doll-hanging ignites public discussion, education

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2013 - 8:44 AM

Superintendent will review curriculum to ensure all students know why it was unacceptable.

As some Minneapolis Washburn High School students said Wednesday that they'd find healing in an apology from the perpetrators of a doll-hanging incident, a number of adults at a later community meeting said they believe the incident was the result of a lack of understanding about history.

At the end of the day of intense discussion, the district's superintendent said she will review the social studies curriculum to make sure that all students learn why incidents like the Jan. 11 hanging of a dark-skinned doll are unacceptable.

During Wednesday's school day, students were shuttled through small-group sessions guided by outside facilitators to discuss the incident, which led to the discipline of four students.

"We have seen one of our brothers and sisters make a mistake," said student Joseph Froehlich, who described the Washburn community as a family. He called on students to support one another, even the four students disciplined.

Students Jason Williams, who said he's found Minnesota more racially welcoming than Florida, and Coletrane T. Johnson said they'd like an apology. "I'm still learning to express how it affected me," Johnson said.

Later Wednesday, just more than half of the school auditorium's roughly 750 main-floor seats were filled for a community meeting to discuss the incident and the school's handling of it. While many students had seemed ready to move on from the incident, many adults who spoke were not.

Former Washburn parent Al Flowers said he wasn't there to see a pep rally, a tone set early when students cheered for their school, but to see if students know enough history to understand the implications of hanging a dark-skinned doll.

The incident lasted at least 15 minutes and was captured on video and in still images and posted on social media sites.

"Don't let this opportunity pass you by" for educating young people, Flowers pleaded.

Another activist, Mel Reeves, expanded on that theme. "Most people are not aware of our history, and that's what we're concerned about."

Parent and district employee Ellen Shulman said she expressed shock and shame when her son showed her a posted photo of the doll. "He was nonchalant about it when he showed it to me," said Shulman, the daughter of a civil rights lawyer. But she said her son was open to learning from school leaders such as Principal Carol Markham-Cousins that such actions are not acceptable.

"As educators, we have a huge amount of work to do," she said.

In response to concerns that the school did not notify parents quickly enough about the incident, Markham-Cousins said it occurred late on a Friday and that she was out of school for several days after breaking an arm the following day. "I was incensed, outraged, embarrassed and humiliated that this would happen," she said. "What I learned here tonight is we need to educate ... our students and ourselves."

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson praised the audience for being "willing to engage in a critical conversation." After Wednesday evening's session, she said she plans to review the social studies curriculum to make sure they convey enough of the day-to-day experiences of people who lived through racial struggles rather than focusing merely on climactic moments such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 speech in Washington, D.C.

Teacher Aaron Percy said the incident made him realize that not enough is being done to prevent racist attitudes. He said he is proud of students for the discussions that have come in its wake.

Parent Brenda Lynn challenged other parents to get more involved in the school. "If it wasn't for this, would you guys be here?" she asked.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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