BECKER – A social media post inferring pride flags were replacing American flags inside Becker schools brought simmering tensions to the surface recently in this central Minnesota city of 4,800.
That untrue inference, partnered with recent incidents of bullying, verbal attacks and physical confrontations between students based on race or sexual orientation, is pushing students to call for change.
About four dozen high school students walked out Monday afternoon as part of the statewide walkout organized by Minnesota Teen Activists.
The statewide walkouts protested racial injustice and the killing of Daunte Wright, who was shot by a police officer in a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center earlier this month.
Becker students who were already planning a walkout decided to align it with the statewide event in solidarity with the Black community, said junior Nick Roehl.
"The culture needs to change," said Roehl, a member of the Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA) group that meets at the high school.
Becker Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt said Monday he sent a letter to district families stating discrimination has no place in school. But some students and staff say the administration's response is not enough.
"The steps that we want them to take is to go out publicly and denounce the things that have been happening," said Heather Abrahamson, GSA adviser and social studies teacher. "The silence speaks volumes."
Abrahamson said she was a target in some of the comments on the social media post about pride flags.
"Every classroom has an American flag," she said. "I have a GSA flag and a pride flag in my room simply because that's where the group meets."
For Abrahamson, who has been teaching for 28 years, the incidents of bullying and homophobia have become more pervasive in recent years.
"I think that everybody is on edge with it. It does seem like it's at a boiling point," she said.
Abrahamson and Joe Rand, who works part-time at the school as a theater director, met with district leaders last week to ask them to specifically address the recent attacks against marginalized students and make future commitments to increase equity and hold students accountable.
"We've had other instances of harassment and bullying that have happened online that the school has indicated they would address," Rand said. "But it keeps happening and so it doesn't feel like whatever they're doing is working."
During the walkout, about a dozen community members showed their support from the sidewalk.
Sarah Colford, chair of the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee, said she moved to Becker in the mid-1990s. At the time, her family was one of the only minority families, she said.
"Fast forward to now and there's still problems with racism but also sexual orientation and gender," Colford said.
About 93% of students in Becker schools are white and about 1% are Black, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
Becker resident Samantha Almsted, wearing a sweatshirt that said, "I can't keep calm, I have Black children," said she doesn't take her elementary-age children to stores in the community because she's heard racial slurs against them multiple times. She said she also knows students who have left school in tears after verbal racist assaults.
"The school's not doing anything. They just keep sweeping it under the rug," she said.
Raina Schmidt, who graduated from Becker last year, said she was one of the few Native American students in the high school. She attended the walkout Monday to support the students and offer them hope that things get better after high school.
"It changes so much once you leave this community," Schmidt said. "There's a lot of problems in Becker. This is just scratching the surface."
At the walkout, students chanted support for Black lives but also called the city to action: "Becker, do better! Becker, do better!"
For senior Anna Pancoast, who helped organize the event, the walkout was a good start to what she hopes are more conversations to come in the school and community.
"It should be uncomfortable," Pancoast said. "We have to start talking about it or else nothing is going to change."
Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299