Somali-American parents and Muslim civil rights leaders say a settlement between federal officials and the Owatonna Public School District after a federal civil rights investigation of alleged harassment against Somali students is a victory for all minority students.
They also say a plan to address allegations of harassment against Somali-American students is a wake-up call for schools in greater Minnesota, where the immigrant population is rising.
Last fall, Somali students complained when a white student wrote a paper for a class they described as inflammatory and derogatory. Parents say the paper included references to how Muslims dress and pray and claims that Muslims eat dogs. Parents and students complained that school officials didn't take the complaints seriously.
An investigation by the departments of Education and Justice found that Owatonna district's policies, procedures and training did not adequately address the harassment allegations. In response, school administrators have agreed to work with federal officials to address the concerns.
In the last decade, Owatonna has attracted thousands of East African refugees and Latin American immigrants who are putting down roots and calling the city home.
Among them is Habiba Harun, who moved to Minnesota from Maryland five years ago. Harun, who has three school-aged children, two of whom attend Owatonna High School, wants a school environment free from harassment.
"They can't change overnight," she said of people in the community. "But it's changing slowly. And I think that is good."
For the most part, Owatonna's schools are peaceful and welcoming, Harun said. But as Somali-American students assimilate into towns around rural Minnesota, she said, it's critical for school officials to address their complaints in a fair and proactive way.
"This is the root of the Somali youth problem. If we do not take care of the schooling, dropout is the only option they have," she said. "They come from broken backgrounds, civil war, killing. And if we don't teach in the school and we don't give them a safe environment, our kids are not going to be successful in America."
The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations filed the complaint last year on behalf of Somali students in Owatonna.
CAIR-MN also filed a second complaint involving alleged harassment against Somali students in St. Cloud. Officials with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights say that case is still under investigation.
St. Cloud superintendent Bruce Watkins said demographic changes have come fast to his central Minnesota district. About a quarter of the district's 9,500 students are minority, up from about 9 percent in 2000. Many are from refugee and immigrant families.
Watkins acknowledges that accommodating the district's diverse population is not a one-time issue. Still, he hopes for a resolution to the civil rights investigation of his district soon.
"It would be nice to have some finality to this particular complaint that's been in the pipeline for a while," Watkins said. "But in the long run, we know that we'll always be working on trying to make sure, regardless of the situation, we're just providing the best environment for our kids."
The St. Cloud complaint alleges that Somali and Muslim students were harassed about their race and religion. It also alleges that a school bus driver in St. Cloud left Muslim students behind at a bus stop several times and that some students and teachers made disparaging remarks about Somali students.
Lori Saroya, president of CAIR-MN, said the Owatonna agreement is a huge victory for Somali students, particularly those in smaller school districts outside the Twin Cities metro area.
"Finally they're starting to see somebody taking it seriously. It's not just being shoved aside," Saroya said. "They're not being blamed for the harassment that they're facing. That somebody's finally taking their concerns seriously, and I think that's really all they were looking for. Just to be able to go to school and not feel intimidated, not feel threatened on a daily basis."
Saroya said it helps to know the federal government is watching the two districts, and that Owatonna school officials have already committed to revamping their harassment policies.