For Khadra Mohamed, Columbia Heights High School has always felt like a safe and welcoming place for her and others of the Muslim faith.
So it jolted the senior’s sense of security, she said Wednesday, to learn that school Board Member Grant Nichols stands accused of making disparaging online remarks about Muslims. Worse yet, she said, the north-metro district’s school board couldn’t muster the unanimous support to remove Nichols on Tuesday night at a board meeting packed with citizens.
Nichols, who did not attend that meeting, has denied posting the comment, which said Muslims are unsanitary and do not clean up after themselves, saying his cellphone was hacked. The comment, which was placed on a Star Tribune story posted on Facebook, has since been deleted.
“I was just kind of shocked. … I never thought it would occur at Columbia Heights High School,” Mohamed said. “We go by ‘REAL’ around here — respect, education and excellence, attitude, and loyalty. I wish he understood that.”
Said classmate Karim Muse: “I felt I was really disrespected in all kinds of ways.”
On Wednesday morning, the high school’s entire student body, accompanied by teachers and the principal, walked out. After 30 minutes of peaceful protest, the approximately 800 students filed back inside.
“We are here to show solidarity. Columbia Heights High School celebrates diversity,” said Principal Dan Wrobleski, who participated in the protest.
Student leaders said they would not allow the alleged comments of one school board member to jeopardize their education. They also said they would not be satisfied until Nichols is off the board.
Parents and Muslim community leaders who packed the school board meeting vowed to keep up the pressure on Nichols to step down, as well as to work within the political system to diversify the board. The six-seat board has four members in addition to Nichols, as well as one vacant seat. Members of the Muslim community hope to have someone from their ranks fill that vacant post.
The Columbia Heights district, which serves 3,100 students, is one of the most diverse in the state. At the high school, 72 percent of students identify as black, Hispanic, Asian or American Indian.
Senior Sherouk Mohamed said that her community endures some anti-Muslim rhetoric as a sad reality, but that a public posting allegedly by an elected official is outrageous. “He could have kept it to himself,” Mohamed said.
The school board would have needed four votes to oust Nichols. Ted Landwehr, the board’s vice chairman, cast the lone vote to keep Nichols.
Before the vote, Landwehr read a message from Nichols that said he wasn’t attending the meeting because of concerns for his safety.
“It was not my intention to cause damage or inconvenience,” Nichols wrote in the letter. “I do not agree with the comment.”
Neither Nichols nor Landwehr responded to requests for comment Wednesday.
Board Chairman John Larkin, who called Landwehr’s vote a slap in the face for the district, again called for Nichols’ resignation Wednesday.
“I think that’s what would be best for the children, the district and the community at large,” Larkin said. “… I personally feel like democracy failed and the majority was not allowed to speak.”
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of Minnesota’s Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN), said Landwehr’s vote in defense of Nichols was concerning.
“We now have two school board members to worry about,” he said. “Not only did [Landwehr] refuse to listen to the community, he also refused to listen to his peers.”
Citizens grew emotional throughout the lengthy meeting as more than 30 people pleaded for Nichols to resign. One mother, Degha Shabbeleh, 39, wept as she appealed for Nichols’ resignation.
“I was a victim of Islamophobia,” she said. “Hearing or reading what Grant Nichols wrote reminded me of the pain I have suffered before.”
Pride in their home
Columbia Heights, a working-class community of 20,000 just north of Minneapolis, has long been an immigrant enclave, but it has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past two decades. The number of residents of color has risen from 13 percent in 2000 to 30 percent in 2010. More than one-quarter of the city’s residents speak a language other than English at home.
Abdul Erbob, 26, was surprised when he arrived at Tuesday night’s meeting to see that his siblings had come to voice their views as well.
Erbob is of one of 11 siblings whose family came to Columbia Heights in 2002 via Saudi Arabia, one of the first Somali families to settle in the city. Erbob comforted his 13-year-old brother when he broke down while trying to speak to the board.
“He got very emotional because he knows what the comments mean,” he said. “I’m glad he found the courage to speak his mind.”
Erbob and many members of the community are considering a bid to fill the board’s vacant seat.
The board is accepting applications for the vacant seat, said district spokesman Casey Mahon. Board elections take place in January.
Despite the controversy, much of the community has worked to embrace its burgeoning diversity. On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services will present the school district and Columbia Heights police with a national award for their efforts to meet the specific needs of the students in their community and to build trust between law enforcement and young people. The school district has been praised for reducing suspensions by 130 percent.
Mayor Gary Peterson said Nichols’ alleged comment in no way represents Columbia Heights. He pointed out that he and Sal Di Leo co-created the City of Peace Awards after Sept. 11 to celebrate the community’s efforts for peace and diversity.
“It goes against what we are all about,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that he got elected to the school board.”