ST. CLOUD – Dozens of Somali students poured out of Tech High School here Friday for the second time in a week, saying they were outraged that the administration had not done enough to stop classmates who taunted them for being terrorists, tried to pull off their hijabs and regularly hounded them.
State troopers and local cops, who arrested a Somali senior here during another clash Wednesday, swarmed the front of the school and eventually stood guard behind the front door. Administrators restricted most students inside from leaving; teens gawked at the commotion through the windows.
It was the latest example of racial frustrations erupting at the St. Cloud school district, which is mostly white but home to a growing East African population. Complaints about Somalis being harassed at Apollo High School, another institution in the district, prompted an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education in late 2011 that called for improving the environment for East Africans.
Raha Omar, an 18-year-old senior, said Somali students have a right to feel safe at school.
“Every single day something happens,” said Omar, as protesters, including one student in tears, fanned across the lawn and some negotiated with a cop at the entrance. “Somali kids [are] being treated like crap. … We go to [administrators] and nothing happens.”
As tension grew on the lawn, one white student walking by told a friend on the phone to sneak out a back door to avoid being stuck inside for hours, as happened on Wednesday.
Superintendent Willie Jett was vague when asked about what the administration had done in past years to address racial problems, saying the staff is focused on this week’s events and would be having broader conversations with parents and students.
“Our response has to be geared toward how to make kids feel safe,” he said.
Somali students told the Star Tribune of a pervasive climate of bullying toward girls who wore hijabs at the school. They said students spat on them from the top of the stairwell at the place they used to pray, told them to go back to their country, jumped on their cafeteria tables and stepped on their food, and knocked coffee cups out of their hands.
Jett said the district had filed a report with the U.S. Department of Education on its progress with Somali students as recently as last summer. In recent days, the Minnesota Department of Education has also reached out to the district, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which helped spur the 2011 settlement, has plans to meet with school administrators.
On Wednesday, tensions exploded after Somali students learned of a white classmate posting a picture on the social networking app Snapchat of a Somali freshman in a wheelchair and appending a caption that linked her to ISIS, the Islamic terrorist group. Someone took a screenshot of the picture and it rapidly circulated.
Jett said staff was talking to the perpetrator’s parents and considering suspension or other options.
But more than 100 Somali teens, upset that the bully didn’t seem to face any consequences, staged a walkout from the cafeteria that day and protested on the lawn, as the administration put the school in containment, meaning that students’ movement inside was restricted.
“You cannot change how a person thinks, but I think teachers should take the responsibility, because when we’re in class or school, we should all be treated equally,” said Suda Salah, a 19-year-old senior. “When a kid does something like that, he should be punished; there should be consequences.”
Administrators came outside to try to defuse the situation.
“All 1,425 students in this school are very, very important to us,” said Principal Adam Holm, according to video footage.
“How many times have each and every one of us felt victimized at the school?” junior Hafsa Abdi told him, surrounded by a large crowd. “We do not feel safe at this school. We have come to report and report and report, and have not seen anything.”
Leaders of the protests, backed by Somali elders, met with administrators privately on Wednesday and Thursday but say they fear the district isn’t doing enough to change the culture of the school.
On Friday, some of the Somali students demanded that charges be dropped against 19-year-old senior Redwan Shire, who said that he tried walking out of the building on Wednesday to take his sister away from the protest, fearing the situation was too volatile. He said a security guard tried to restrain him, he pushed back, and wound up in jail for eight hours for disorderly conduct. Shire was also suspended for five days.
Tech High School staff met with Somali students Friday morning to try to smooth over tensions, but talks fell apart, according to interviews. The school had no authority to have the charges dropped, according to Jett, who couldn’t say why the police were called shortly thereafter. Some Somali students said there was a minor dispute between a Somali and non-Somali classmate trying to film on her phone as they gathered after the failed talks; they said police showed up and they were ordered out.
St. Cloud Police Lt. Jeff Oxton said the department would defer to the school on exactly what happened, but that officers responded to a disturbance inside. They quickly determined the matter was under control and stood guard as a precautionary measure.
After about an hour, Somali students had mostly dispersed as rain descended in the chilly air. Some said they didn’t want to come back.