Frustrated by how school officials have handled racist acts and behavior by students in the Eastern Carver County School District, a group of parents is calling for reforms and the removal of the Chaska High School principal.
“Racist incidents and systemic inequities … have plagued the district for far too long,” according to a petition to school officials signed by about 700 people. “Harm sustained is serious and ongoing. Students’ and parents’ well-documented pleas for change have gone unanswered.”
The petition was circulated this week by a diverse group of about 100 parents and Chaska residents, said Amanda Flowers Peterson of Chaska. The group is protesting what it considers inadequate responses to a couple of recent incidents as well as other episodes over the years where students were targets of name-calling, physical abuse and other harassment.
Among other changes, the petition calls for a zero-tolerance policy toward racist behavior and support for student victims of racism by trauma specialists.
Peterson said that last year her son, a 6-year-old boy of color, was punched in the face on the bus on two separate occasions.
“There’s been nothing done, even after I brought it up again what took place,” said Peterson, who works as a program director for a nonprofit. “I haven’t gotten even a call, a ‘Hey, I just wanted to follow up with you.’ ”
School officials have promised to form an equity advisory council, increase staff diversity and hire an equity coordinator. Chaska Mayor Mark Windschitl and the Chaska Human Rights Commission issued statements promising to address the problem.
About 28% of Chaska High’s 1,500 students belong to minority groups, officials said. About 14% are Latino, followed by Asian-Americans and African-Americans at about 5% each; the remainder is divided between students of multiple races or other ethnic groups. The district’s staff includes 78 people of color, including two administrators and nine teachers.
At a packed and emotionally charged school board meeting Monday, Superintendent Clint Christopher apologized for the district’s handling of previous incidents. The district encompasses Chaska, Chanhassen, Victoria and Carver.
“We’ve talked about the importance of increased communication and transparency and we didn’t meet our standards — I didn’t meet my standards. And I’m sorry and I will do better,” said Christopher, superintendent since 2017.
“There are students who are not feeling safe, who are not feeling welcomed and are not feeling valued. That’s unacceptable. We need to change the lived experience for all of our students.”
Chaska High Principal Jim Bach also spoke at the meeting, as well as at a school assembly on Friday.
“We do have issues in this school, and until we acknowledge that and address it head on, we can’t move forward,” said Bach, principal since 2016, at the assembly.
In one recent incident, white students circulated a map on social media that included pictures of 25 black students and the label “Negro Hill.” Some parents were angry they weren’t told about the incident until after a public forum on racism organized last week by school officials.
“My son was on the front of the [Chaska] Herald paper for running track last year, but now he’s on Negro Hill,” said one woman who spoke at Monday’s meeting.
In another incident, a high school girl this winter organized a group to create posters for Black History Month and asked Bach’s permission to display them. The girl, who also spoke at Monday’s meeting, said that the principal disapproved posters on some subjects — such as Malcolm X, Emmett Till and Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old shot by a white police officer — while allowing others.
“[Bach] said the posters could be perceived as negative and controversial … by other students,” said the girl’s mother, Tonya Coleman, who also spoke at the meeting.
Bach declined to comment for this story.
The poster group later held a peaceful protest between classes at the high school, chanting “Black history uncensored.” They were followed by some white students with posters that said “All Lives Matter,” a phrase often considered hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement. Arguments later flared on social media, Coleman said.
Coleman, a professional event planner, invited community members to view eight of the posters at the Chaska Community Center. About 400 attended the event, including some teachers but no district officials, she said.
At Monday’s meeting, people spoke for about three hours. Parents, their voices often breaking with emotion, described racism that their children had experienced.
“My little 7-year-old daughter is getting called the N-word on the school bus by [older] kids that live in our neighborhood,” one woman said.
“I have two boys, two African-American boys, one will be entering the high school next year and I’m scared to death because of all I’ve heard,” said parent Stacie Destin of Chaska.
Donzel Leggett, also of Chaska, read a letter from his son Donzel Jr., a Chaska High School graduate who has since graduated cum laude from college and lives in Chicago. He wrote that he frequently experienced racism in high school, including white students commenting on his hair, telling him racist jokes, asking why he didn’t “talk like a thug” and staging a “fake gang fight” as a joke.
“You really feel powerless,” Donzel Jr. wrote.
In an interview, Christopher said that disciplinary action taken against students who engage in racist harassment is kept confidential, even from parents whose kids were targeted. But he said such action can range from suspension to expulsion. He declined to say how often discipline is used.
The parents’ petition calls for high school “leadership” — meaning Bach, parents said later — “to be replaced with a professional with documented, proven commitment to the full needs and potentials of all students.”
“We’re not advocating that he lose his livelihood,” Coleman said, suggesting that Bach could be transferred. “But we feel he’s not equipped to deal with racial incidents that are happening at the school.”