Federal agency will investigate alleged harassment against Somali students

Steve Jordahl
St. Cloud Superintendent Steve Jordahl.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has decided to investigate complaints of discrimination in the St. Cloud and Owatonna public schools after a civil rights group based in St. Paul filed complaints against the two districts.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed the complaints in March. The complaints alleged that Somali and Muslim students were harassed about their race and religion and include that a school bus driver in St. Cloud left Muslim students behind at the bus stops several times and that some students and teachers made disparaging remarks about Somali students.

Education department spokesman Justin Hamilton said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race or national origin by recipients of federal money, such as public schools.

"The complaint we received from Minnesota alleges that there has been discrimination in schools based on national origin," Hamilton said.

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Hamilton said the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) determined the CAIR complaints meet a basic threshold to proceed with an investigation.

"There has been no determination of wrongdoing, but we will be there on the ground to look into these issues further and determine what the status is," he said.

Hamilton said the OCR will send investigators to Minnesota to talk to CAIR, students who say they were harassed, officials from both school districts, and other relevant sources.

"I think the best way to look at this is the beginning of a fact-gathering process," he said.

St. Cloud superintendent Steve Jordahl said he was hoping his district wouldn't have to go through a federal investigation, but he understands the Department of Education is just doing its job.

"I am not disappointed that the investigation is going to be done," Jordahl said. "I'm disappointed in the sense that it's a distraction to what we do as professionals to impact the lives of children because that's what we do as a school district."

Jordahl said he's confident his school district is having a positive impact on students.

"We know that we have solid programs in place, and so when something comes along that distracts us from doing that, yes, it causes a disappointment," he said. "But are we surprised by the distraction that it's going to happen? No. Were we wishing that it wasn't going to happen? Absolutely."

Jordahl said he hoped the school district's internal investigation would have been enough to resolve the issues. The school district investigated 14 incidents and found that tensions have occurred among a small pool of students at two of the district's high schools. But it did not find any evidence to support seven out of eight complaints raised by CAIR.

The report also concluded that school administrators respond proactively and properly to concerns when students file complaints.

The CAIR complaint also cites allegations of harassment at Owatonna High School. The Owatonna school superintendent did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Taneeza Islam is the civil rights director for CAIR. Islam says the organization is pleased that a neutral body will look into its complaints.

"We've had situations, such as other students degrading Somali and Muslim students in the schools, where administrators were aware of such concerns and did not, in our view, take the appropriate steps to counter these or create a hostile-free environment," Islam said.

St. Cloud school board member Jerry Von Korff said he welcomes feedback that the district needs to do a better job, but he disagrees with allegations that the district has willingly ignored complaints.

The U.S. Education Department's Justin Hamilton said the investigation is still in its initial stages, and he doesn't have details on when investigators will begin their work in Minnesota. The OCR has received 77 similar complaints from across the country that involved elementary and secondary schools since October 2006.