ST. CLOUD - On March 25th, over 100 students, mostly Somali, walked out and protested outside of Tech High School.

Over three months later, the protest is still sparking conversations between students, teachers and district officials on how to improve conditions in St. Cloud area schools.

Students say the cause of the walk out was years of built up frustration from bullying and discrimination and a lack of action from teachers and staff to address it. The outrage reached its peak when a photo was posted to the social media site Snapchat with an insensitive remark involving a Somali girl in a wheelchair, implying she was part of the Islamic State terrorist group.

Tech High School. (Dan DeBaun, WJON)

In the weeks and months following, a group of around 100 people have been meeting with district leaders to talk about the alleged bullying and discrimination in St. Cloud Area schools.

Al Johnson is the principal of ALC McKinley in Waite Park and is a facilitator for the group. He and a group of about 15 students have been working every week since the protest. Johnson perviously worked in Hopkins as an equity integration specialist for five years. He was brought into the group because of his past experience with students and inequality.

"Something that I'm learning everyday is that if we do not give our students a voice, we as adults will continue to make the mistakes that have been happening over and over again," Johnson says.

The group was eventually named the Tech High School Student Advocate Team by students. The group usually meets for about an hour on Thursday afternoons. Johnson says they are focused on making the school environment better for every student.

"The kind of change we're looking for is going to take a lot longer, we're looking for systemic changes."

Idman Abdullahi is one of the students in the group and says they are working with teachers to try and prevent bullying before it starts in the future.

"Some teachers are just trying to follow the school rules, but if teachers aren't trying to help those [frustrated] students, it's hard."

Some community members previously said during an open forum in April that they felt the situation isn't a race issue, rather a parenting or bullying concern. When asked about opposing viewpoints, Johnson said everyone in the community is entitled to their opinion.

"One of our group beliefs is in freedom of speech. Say what you want to say, think what you want to think, but the unfortunate reality in St. Cloud is that there are groups of children failing. If a kid is bullied constantly and not able to show up as their authentic self, they doubt themselves, they have low self-esteem and it could end in them harming themselves or somebody else."

Converations over the past few months between the group and the district have picked up momentum and will continue through the summer. Abdullahi says slow and steady progress is being made in St. Cloud area schools.

"Things are not changing completely, but how we're working together as a group, we feel really good about whatever we discuss."

After the first meeting in late-March, District 742 superintendent Willie Jett said the group expressed concerns to the district, including a higher suspension rate, bullying and harassment of Somali students, a lack of instructor diversity and concerns with the achievement gap.

"The task force expressed their concerns and the meeting was very productive, we were all working together and we wanted to be sure to have an open conversation with the task force," Jett said.

Moving towards the fall, Johnson agrees progress is being made, but says more conversations need to be held with students, the district and the community.

"In Minnesota we are becoming very diverse. If we don't have the conversation and start it now, it's going to be uncomfortable. A lot of times if I don't like something-I'm going to avoid it or I'm going to fight against it. That's what is happening right now-people are fighting against something they don't understand."

Johnson says the group is encouraging the district to have more staff training to be aware of the needs of all students. They also feel it would be beneficial to start a student cultural advisory group at both Tech and Apollo High School.

"If we don't start helping our students understand these different cultures, we will not be helping them succeed."

 

Abdullahi and Johnson talk about the progress made in the Tech High School Student Advocate Team. (Dan DeBaun, WJON)