Dozens of students walked out of Centennial High School in Circle Pines on a recent sunny morning after an Asian student received text messages containing racist and vulgar remarks.
Someone later placed stickers on the building with swastikas and the words, "We are everywhere," leaving Aundrea Atkinson, a junior who spoke at the March 29 protest, to suspect the incidents were related.
The Centennial district says it is committed to equity and to listening to students. But some at the school still feel hurt, angry and ignored, and they've stepped up publicly to have their voices heard.
In recent communications to families, the district has made clear it condemns "all types of hatred and racism." Text messages directed at student Elaina Yang — screen grabs of which she posted on Instagram in late March — were investigated, and disciplinary action taken, but student privacy rights barred the district from going into greater detail.
Details of the March 30 swastika incident were withheld from students and families for a week because police were investigating, the district said. But the school system said it decided to issue a call for help this week after all leads were exhausted and no suspects identified.
"We are sickened that this occurred and recognize the impact of this incident ... on our BIPOC students, our school culture and on all of us," the message on Monday stated. "We will continue to come together as a school, as a district and as a community to keep our students, families and residents safe." The acronym BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color.
The next day, standing outside the school near the scene of the walkout, Atkinson read the statement for the first time and said: "I don't know if I can believe this one — where [it] talks about 'community,' " she said.
Her message, and that of several other speakers at the protest, is that too many students feel unwelcome at the school.
Centennial High draws more than 2,000 students from five north-metro communities and describes itself as a "large metropolitan high school with a small-town attitude." White students make up 80% of the school's population, with students who identify as Hispanic, Black, Asian and two or more races representing about 5% each.
The walkout was organized by a 2019 graduate, Desi Hennagir, who went to school with Yang's sister and who suffered depression and self-image problems she said were due in part to racist taunts she endured.
"Seeing someone broken again was kind of the last straw for me," Hennagir said later.
She brought her mother to the protest and at one point spoke of being subjected to a racial slur while at recess in elementary school — an incident she said her mother reported.
"What happened?" she asked her mother at the walkout.
"Nothing," her mother replied.
A mixed-race student noted how the district has put up signs to "Erase Racism" and said, "They aren't working."
Atkinson recalled an incident last summer when nine students came to her house and shouted: "Who let the gorillas out?" She announced at the protest that she was meeting with the principal the next day.
Yang, whose post about harassment and racial slurs inspired the walkout, did not reply to the Star Tribune's requests for comment. At the protest, she said: "I have been made to feel the things people say to me are normal and that I'm just overreacting. But I have learned that it's absolutely not OK and it's a huge problem. ... It's time to end this together."
Atkinson and Hennagir said that in addition to cracking down on racism, the district should consider curriculum changes to include more BIPOC success stories and discussions of current events, change its complaint "tip line" to allow for greater anonymity — voices could be identified, they say — and replace posters that many see as a substitute for genuine activism.
The district, choosing to take questions via e-mail rather than an interview, provided a detailed summary of its equity work. It said two student groups — Centennial Students for Change, based at the high school, and a BIPOC Advisory Group, at the middle school — have been meeting with administrative teams to discuss ways to improve the school environment and address potential concerns.
Curriculum changes are ongoing and include replacing "To Kill A Mockingbird" with "The Poet X" and a variety of spoken word performances and novels selected on the basis of student surveys, the district said. Books by BIPOC authors have been added to media centers in the district.
As for the posters, the district said they came about after students, specifically BIPOC students, were interviewed over the summer and requested that a "stance against racism" be taken and included on the walls of the schools.
The district is looking into a digital platform for its tip line and exploring the implementation of a K-12 anti-bias program that would take effect in the fall for all students.
Centennial High has 106 teachers, and four are teachers of color. To boost that number, the district needs buy-in from its graduates. It is partnering with Minnesota State University Mankato on a "grow your own" program that introduces secondary students to teaching careers in hopes they eventually return to work in the Centennial district.
Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109