South High regroups after brawl

One day after ethnic tensions helped fuel a melee at the Minneapolis school, Somali and black activists met with staff and students amid a partial lockdown.

Leaders from the Somali and African-American communities met Friday with the principal of Minneapolis South High School, vowing to take action about what they said are simmering tensions between students of different ethnic groups.

The meeting came a day after 200 to 300 students brawled in the school cafeteria, stopping only when additional police officers were called in to help. The school beefed up security Friday and operated under a partial lockdown. No incidents were reported.

"If people do not learn from each other and don't learn the history of each other, you can be neighbors, but there can be problems," Somali activist Abdirizak Bihi said after the meeting.

Activist Al Flowers said problems have been brewing for a while. "We need to try to fix it before it gets any uglier," he said.

Some students said that smaller fights have broken out all year and that they weren't surprised that the hostilities boiled over Thursday.

The melee came two days after the student newspaper wrote about Somali students' frustration that their concerns weren't being addressed, and about conflicts between them and students of various ethnic backgrounds, including blacks and American Indians.

Tension has "definitely increased this year," said Sadie Pelini, a senior who wrote the article. "It's just at a whole different scale this year."

School board member Hussein Samatar met at the school Friday with dozens of Somali students and parents, plus administrators. The first Somali-born Minnesotan elected to public office said the melee resulted from a feeling among Somali-American students that they're not respected at the school. He vowed to follow through with action. "It is a matter of safety and a matter of education and a matter of the future of the city," he said.

Although some students reported tensions between Somali students and other blacks or Indian students, Samatar said he thinks the cafeteria fight grew less from racial tension than from frustration among the school's fast-rising Somali population. Nearly half of the school's 1,750 students are students of color, and of those, 8 percent are of Somali heritage.

Samatar said students and parents have several concerns, including the belief that the school is ill-equipped to deal with the needs of Somali families, lacking a Somali liaison, and that their concerns have been disregarded. "They feel isolated. They feel frustrated," he said.

School district spokesman Stan Alleyne said Friday that the district won't be able to speak about what prompted Thursday's brawl but added that it is working to address Somali students' concerns.

The school started a Somali class and student association, "but we need to do more," he said. He added that the district wasn't aware of any specific discrimination complaints.

Melting pot boils over

Clashes between Somali-Americans and African-American students happen all the time, said Tomo Sencer-Mura, a South senior. "It seems at least every week between here, the YWCA and the light rail there's some sort of incident between Somali-American students and African-American students," he said.

Saida Mahamud, a Somali-American senior, attributed the buildup of animosity to a more diverse student population. "South used to be a white school," she said. "Now with more minorities coming and different cultures mixing, tensions are happening."

Senior Kirk Atwater said he has witnessed friction between Somali-American and African-American students. Asked about the cause, he said: "A lot of people at the school are disappointed that the Somali students aren't assimilating to American culture."

The fighting came two days after the article in the Southerner. It said two students ripped a Somali welcome banner off a balcony and that a lunch table that primarily had been used by East African students was removed from the lunchroom earlier this year.

"This lunchroom fight, it wasn't a surprise. It was bound to happen," said Ethiopian student Omar Ahmed, who said he's often mistaken for Somali.

Amirah Ellison, an African-American student, said the school is so big that it's easy for students to get comfortable with their own racial groups and not reach out to others. And there are tensions across racial lines other than the one between African immigrants, or their children, and African-Americans, Ellison said.

South "reflects Minneapolis pretty well," said Ellison, daughter of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and Minneapolis school board member Kim Ellison. "But there's also a problem: We're not being taught to actually live diversity within our school. There's not communication with other groups outside our own comfort zone."

At the same time, she said that most of the students at the school are respectful and tolerant of other racial groups. Most of the students involved in the school fight were drawn into it unwillingly, she added.

On Friday, Sgt. William Palmer said the investigation will take seeral weeks.

If juveniles are subject to charges -- offenses could include rioting or disorderly conduct -- those cases would go to the Hennepin County attorney's office, the sergeant said. Any cases involving adults as suspects could be prosecuted either by the county attorney's office or by the city attorney's office, with the more serious offenses going to the county attorney, Palmer said.

The district said that if adults or students want to report information or have concerns, they may contact 1-800-SpeakUP, text Mpls to 847411 or contact the high school office at 612-668-4300.

Star Tribune staff writers Bill McAuliffe, Kelly Smith, Paul Walsh, Matt McKinney, Maya Rao and University of Minnesota student intern Brian Arola contributed to this report. ashah@startribune.com • 612-673-4488 sbrandt@startribune.com • 612-673-4438

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