A high school in Baldwin, Wis., a small town about 40 miles east of the Twin Cities, has suspended a ninth-grade student for giving a miniature noose and "KKK symbol" to a black classmate.

Eric Russell, principal of Baldwin-Woodville High School, said he suspended the boy Dec. 14 after he confessed to placing the offensive items on the desk of the classmate, whose foster mother said she is 15 years old and one of only three black students in the 450-student school.

"They were in an art class, and a little macrame noose was made, and some kind of KKK symbol," Russell said Friday. "These two small objects were placed before this individual. The young man said it was done as a joke."

But it wasn't a joke to the black student and her family, said her foster mother, Sarah Hitzeman, who, with her husband, is in the process of adopting the teen.

"She has been experiencing racial comments since joining our family her eighth-grade year," Hitzeman wrote in an e-mail sent to an advocate for disadvantaged youth and shared with the Star Tribune. "Her freshman year started out with students calling her 'Big Mocha' and making fun of her hair and breasts."

The student told Hitzeman about the Dec. 13 noose incident when she got home from school, and Hitzeman notified Russell the next day, which happened to be the last day before the holiday break.

Hitzeman said she later learned that the school initially gave the boy in-school suspension for one day, but changed it to an out-of-school suspension after the school was contacted by a NAACP representative whom Hitzeman had contacted.

Russell confirmed that since the school break, he has imposed the more severe suspension on the boy. It will begin when students return to school next week. Russell declined to say how long the suspension will last. He said he also notified the boy's parents and Baldwin police.

The boy's parents were "upset, shocked" about what their son had done, said Russell, who added that although a police officer interviewed the boy, "I believe no charges have been filed at this time."

Baldwin Police Chief Jim Widiker, the only department official authorized to answer media inquiries, was out of the office this week and did not respond to a telephone message.

Fred Friedman, the longtime chief public defender for northeastern Minnesota, said he learned of the noose incident through contacts in the Duluth-Superior child advocacy network and was so disturbed that he wrote to the U.S. attorney for western Wisconsin. He said he also tried on Christmas Eve to report it to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction but could not reach any officials there because of slim holiday staffing.

Media relations officials for both offices were on vacation this week, and neither responded to requests for comment.

'This isn't OK'

According to the latest census, the sister communities of Baldwin, population 4,000, and Woodville, population 1,300, are about 96 percent white. Blacks, American Indians and Asian-Americans each make up less than 1 percent of Baldwin's inhabitants, and Hispanics or Latinos account for 1.6 percent, according to the figures.

School Board Member Deb Rasmussen said Friday that she hadn't been aware of the noose incident until a reporter called her. She said she doesn't believe the incident reflects any larger intolerance at the school or in the community.

"Baldwin-Woodville is a good place, and we're proud of that fact," she said

Russell called what happened "absolutely not acceptable behavior" and said he believes the boy is remorseful. He said the school may increase the number of activities it does each year designed to promote tolerance and respect for others. He said each grade already has annual "respect retreats" and a student leadership program in which older students mentor incoming freshmen on proper behavior.

Hitzeman said that other students, after hearing of the boy's suspension, have criticized her foster daughter, saying she overreacted to a joke. Hitzeman said she wants school officials to lay down the law to students and teachers, telling them that the school won't tolerate race-based harassment of any kind and will come down hard on anyone who harasses someone for reporting it.

"To have a school that has no tolerance for bullying but a lot of tolerance for racial issues isn't right," Hitzeman said. "I want my daughter to understand this isn't OK, and she doesn't have to accept it."

Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751