Tensions flared and all after-school activities were canceled Thursday after Minneapolis Washburn High School said that four students had dangled a dark-skinned doll by a piece of string in a school stairway last week.

The four students were disciplined.

In an impromptu dialogue just inside the school's doors late in the day, a handful of residents expressed to administrators how they believe the school should address the incident, which community activists called an act of racial bullying.

"I'm saying talk about it. ... It's not OK," said Betty Ellison-Harpole, a retired Minneapolis teacher, who recommended that the school hold an assembly with students to discuss their feelings.

The incident is embarrassing to a district that, despite uneven academic results, prides and markets itself as a place where students are amply prepared to thrive in a multi-racial world.

"This is an extremely disturbing occurrence ... such insensitive behavior is intolerable in our school and school district," Principal Carol Markham-Cousins said in a communication to parents Wednesday.

Friday is the start of a scheduled four-day break for high school students.

Citing privacy restrictions, the district did not release all details of the incident, including the race of the students who were disciplined or the degree of discipline. However, the Star Tribune has learned that four white students were suspended.

Minneapolis Public Schools spokesman Stan Alleyne said the doll incident happened in a hall and lasted about 15 to 20 minutes. He said the students posed for photos with the doll in a way that suggested they found it amusing. He said staff members acted appropriately in response.

One black parent heavily involved in the school's parent leadership declined to comment. "There are a lot of facts that are still missing," said Michael DeVaughn, the parent.

School board member Kim Ellison said the administration told her it had safety concerns that prompted cancellation of all after-school activities, including a basketball game, and a Site Council meeting. "I would hate to have my child in the situation," Ellison, whose daughter attends a different city high school, said of the incident.

'Opportunity for healing'

A few black community activists and parents gathered after school, initially hoping to attend the canceled council meeting. At first they were barred from entering the building, but eventually they were allowed inside the doors, where they raised concerns with school officials.

One of them, Washburn parent Ralph Crowder, said parents should have been notified sooner. "I think this is an opportunity for healing and critical thinking," he said.

Although Alleyne said the string technically was not a noose, activist K.G. Wilson took it that way. "Do I have to tell you what that means? It's a visual message. It's a hateful message," he said.

James Burroughs, the school district's executive director of equity and diversity, said that there would be a community meeting to talk more about the incident. "We want the community involved," he said.

Markham-Cousins also shook hands with those gathered and said that she was "appalled" by what happened.

Markham-Cousins and the district said they were pursuing using restorative justice techniques for the disciplined students "to take responsibility for their actions." Restorative justice is an alternative criminal justice approach outside of a formal court setting that typically brings offenders and victims together. They discuss how actions affected the victim and how to repair the harm.

"This is something that has taken some of the folks by surprise, and it's angered many people, including young people," Alleyne said.

Washburn has changed markedly in the last several years as the district has enforced attendance boundaries. Whites have replaced blacks as the school's largest racial group, with white enrollment rising from 21 percent in 2008 to 46 percent last fall. Black share of enrollment fell from 51 percent to 27 percent, while Latino, and Asian populations held relatively steady. The school's share of students in poverty is also dropping.

sbrandt@startribune.com • 612-673-4438 nicole.norfleet@startribune.com • 612-673-4495