Marnita Schroedl was on a mission. She wanted the 200 or so students, parents and St. Paul Public Schools staff and faculty gathered at Washington Technology Magnet School to get to know each other.
"Scooch, scooch, scooch your booty," Schroedl said as she urged everyone to "sit next to someone you've never met before."
Schroedl's nonprofit, Marnita's Table, led a community dinner and conversation on safety for the state's second largest school district on Thursday.
The event was the latest in a series of conversations school board members and district officials have embarked on in the weeks since students, parents and community members raised alarms over concerning behavior and incidents in the district's middle and high schools.
Shootings near schools sent two high schools into lockdown in January and a student was fatally stabbed at Harding High in February. Students and staff from several district schools spoke to the conflicts that have arisen in classrooms and hallways since campuses reopened for in-person instruction after pandemic distance learning.
"My plea on Feb. 10 was that we can't do this alone," St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said. "We've got to do this together."
So district officials began surveying staff, students and families. St. Paul Public Schools also secured a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to develop a school safety plan that it will pilot at five middle schools and five high schools over the next three years.
But first, Gothard said, the district had to gather input from staff, students and the community. Board members have spent the last few weeks visiting high school campuses and holding group discussions with students.
The district is also planning more events like Thursday's dinner to reach even more students and their families. Throughout the evening, Schroedl directed attendees to forge bonds with as many people as possible.
Her nonprofit commissioned a survey of about 2,000 people after George Floyd's murder to ask what would make them feel safer. The resounding theme of the responses, Schroedl said, was a desire to know neighbors better.
"We are here as members of one community," Schroedl said.
Johnson High junior Bobby Arnold said he's never felt unsafe at his school, largely because of the community the staff and faculty have fostered. But he believes it's essential for the district to address issues on other campuses — and he stressed that when he met recently with School Board Member Zuki Ellis. He grew up on the city's East Side and several of his friends attend Harding. When news of February's fatal stabbing broke, Arnold knew the event would have an emotional ripple effect among the city's youth.
"We're all in the community," he said in an interview Wednesday morning. "We're all in St. Paul."
Johnson High School Principal Jamil Payton wants those conversations to take on a more acute focus.
"We need to talk about who this is happening to," he said. "What happened at Harding affected two young Black men. And that's not just happening in St. Paul or the state of Minnesota. It's happening nationwide."
That's why Payton takes a three-point approach to safety at Johnson: Are kids physically safe in his building? Do they feel safe attending school? And, finally, are they getting their social and mental health needs addressed?
That's not easy. It has led to conversations about breaking through the stigma of openly discussing mental health, especially among Black male students — about 10% of Johnson High's enrollment.
If students learn the skills to take care of themselves, that can also help them avoid and resolve conflicts in the school hallways, Payton said.
Makai Green, 17, began this school year skeptical of therapy. But like many teenage boys, the Johnson High senior has been more open to talking about his feelings lately.
About 20% of high school junior boys reported grappling with mental health issues in 2022, a slight bump higher than in 2019 but nearly twice as many as in 2016, according to the most recently released Minnesota Student Survey. Some students attribute that rise, in part, to teen boys being more willing to talk about their mental health.
For Makai, it took a school counselor referring him to a social worker during a routine conversation about his class schedule. He brushed off the suggestion at first, but warmed up to the idea after recalling how often faculty and staff at Johnson make time to check in with him or ask how things are going outside of school.
"They look at you like a person," said Makai, who also recently chatted with Ellis, the board member, when she visited Johnson.
He occasionally visits the social worker now, especially if he has minor conflicts to resolve with his peers.
Payton attributes the school's welcoming culture to how Johnson High staffers are invested in the health of the surrounding community.
"A lot of people who work here are immersed in the community here," Payton said. "Does that happen overnight? No."