Gov. Mark Dayton is calling for the resignation of the Columbia Heights school board member who allegedly made disparaging remarks about Muslims online.
Dayton visited Columbia Heights High School on Friday, saying he was moved by students, teachers and administrators who staged a walkout earlier in the week after news surfaced of the Facebook post.
The law says people are created equal, Dayton told the students and staff, but without actions, they mean nothing.
“They’re words on paper unless courageous Minnesotans like you — like all of you — stand up to make them matter, to make them mean something, to stand up and say, ‘No, what somebody said or did is wrong,’ ” Dayton said.
The Columbia Heights school board narrowly voted to allow Grant Nichols to keep his seat earlier this week after revelations that he made comments on Facebook that denigrated Muslims, calling their bathroom habits “unsanitary.”
The incident has torn at the increasingly diverse suburban community, sharply dividing the school board and drawing pointed criticism from the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Nichols, 40, later said someone else must have used his phone to post the comment. He has declined repeated requests for an interview.
Nichols was elected to the board in 2014 and works as a color printer. He has served as a baseball and basketball coach in the community.
He also is a regular commenter on social media, sometimes on divisive issues.
In one post about the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, Nichols defended Israel’s right to defend itself aggressively. “Besides they are outnumbered like 1 million muslims for 1 jew over there in the middle east [sic],” he wrote.
After another exchange on the subject, Nichols defended himself against critics.
“Just calling me a racist just makes you look ultra stupid since you know little about me or what I stand for,” he wrote. “Name anything I have said that is racist or thinking one race is better then [sic] the other. Its [sic] called holding people accountable as well as accepting.”
Dayton addressed the students in a schoolwide assembly, which included performances from the drum line and choir.
The governor’s staff indicated on his daily schedule that the event would be open to the media. When journalists arrived, administrators said Superintendent Kathy Kelly ordered the event to be closed to the news media.
Later in the day, school officials posted a video of the assembly on the Internet.
The governor said he decided to come to the school after seeing news reports earlier this week.
Though students in the high school speak 20 different languages, he said they sat together unified after an explosive week.
“Those are just the greatest moments in my work,” Dayton said after the assembly.
He also told reporters that Nichols “should resign or be forced to resign.”
Columbia Heights is a working-class community of 20,000 residents north of Minneapolis; the district serves 3,100 students. It has also changed dramatically over the past 20 years. In a decade, the number of residents of color more than doubled to 30 percent by 2010. More than one-quarter of the city’s residents speak a language other than English at home.
Dayton issued a proclamation honoring the high school’s mascot, dubbing Friday “Hylanders Day” across the state. He gave the proclamation to Kelly, Principal Dan Wrobleski and school board members John Larkin, Molly Lewis and Laura Palmer, who all voted to remove Nichols from the board.
Students cheered loudest when Dayton read the proclamation. Afterward, Dayton praised students for standing up so strongly against something they believed was wrong. Disrespecting of diversity is “not the Minnesota way,” he said.
Beena Raghavendran • 612-673-4569