Racial tension running high after fight at Owatonna High School

By CURT BROWN, Star Tribune

November 20, 2009

Racial tension has been building at Owatonna High School this week after a fight broke out Monday between white and Somali students, prompting heightened police presence, backpack searches and widespread parental worries.

Owatonna Police Chief Shaun LaDue said between six and 15 officers have been assigned this week to the school, which usually uses one liaison officer.

Principal Don Johnson said the problems began when two white students wrote papers in recent weeks that were "inflammatory and very disrespectful." One student handed out copies of his paper to friends, while the other posted his on a class blog. Both were suspended from the school of 1,600 students -- about 100 of whom are Somali.

Johnson said that before the second student returned to school Monday, the student sent text messages over the weekend to white and Somali students that were "unapologetic and in your face." He then walked into a common area Monday where more than 20 Somali students were gathered and sat down. An altercation erupted that sent one of the white students to the hospital for observation.

"When two or three [Somali] students went over there to take things into their own hands, they had a gallery," Johnson said. "It has triggered a kind of pandemonium mainly involving parents of Caucasian students, who pictured the worse -- as if 200 students were fighting on the football field."

False text messages about the school being on lockdown after someone brought a gun "created some additional strife," the principal said. "We've operated peacefully for years and then, all of a sudden, it seems like two boys couldn't quite figure it out."

One mother said Wednesday that her ninth-grader "is scared to death to go back to school tomorrow."

"There was another fight Tuesday that the school is not admitting to and we're not overreacting by any means," said the mother, who asked that her name not be used because she feared it could put her daughter in jeopardy.

She accused the school of being slow to alert parents about a bomb threat scrawled on a bathroom wall this month. The police chief disagreed, saying the threat was treated "as a No. 1 priority according to the crisis action plan" and parents were sent letters informing them.

"It's fortunate that we don't have much experience with these situations in our community just shy of 30,000 people," LaDue said. "There has been some overreaction, but people just need to be patient as we investigate and come up with answers."

He said he expects possible charges of disorderly conduct or fifth-degree assault, "but won't rule out entertaining hate-crime provisions once the investigation is complete."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767