The federal Department of Education has opened an investigation into claims that Somali students have faced racial discrimination and harassment at schools in St. Cloud and Owatonna.

The investigation was made public Tuesday by the Muslim civil liberties group that called for it. The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) filed complaints with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights in March, citing incidents -- some publicized in the news media -- that it characterized as "anti-Muslim."

The probe will include incidents reported this school year involving high school students in Owatonna, and over the past two years at St. Cloud's Apollo Senior High School and Technical Senior High School. CAIR claims that Somali students were harassed by fellow students because of their race or religion and that both districts failed to stop the behavior.

In a letter to CAIR, federal authorities noted that "opening the allegation for investigation in no way implies that [the Office for Civil Rights] has made a determination with regard to its merits."

In some cases, Muslim students were called "towel heads" and subjected to racial slurs, CAIR has said. Among other complaints reported to CAIR, teachers allegedly handed air freshener to students and told them to spray it when Somali students come into the room, two students shoved bacon in the face of a Somali student and a bus driver routinely left Somali students stranded in the winter.

St. Cloud district officials could not be reached Tuesday for comment on the investigation, and Owatonna school Superintendent Tom Tapper declined to comment.

The St. Cloud Times has reported that an internal school district investigation in that community confirmed many cases in which Somali students were taunted or teased. The report said that district staff dealt with problems and students were punished. It also showed that Somali students harassed non-Somali students.

The district could not confirm some incidents reported by CAIR, including the bacon and bus driver allegations, the St. Cloud Times said.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016