Washburn High School doll hanging draws hundreds to emotional meeting

Hundreds of people gathered in an emotional meeting last night at Washburn High School in Minneapolis to discuss how best to move forward in the wake of a recent racial incident at the school.

On Jan. 11, four students wrapped string around the neck of a dark skinned doll and hung it in a stairwell. The students posted pictures of the doll online, provoking an outcry from parents, students and members of the community.

At last night's meeting people voiced different opinions on how best to move on, while school officials expressed shock at the incident and pledged to do a better job of educating students about the racial context of what happened.

Washburn's principal, Carol Markham-Cousins, told the crowd of nearly 400 people gathered in her school's auditorium, that like many of them she was shocked by the incident.

"I was incensed, outraged, embarrassed, humiliated and angry that this would happen at our diverse and rich school," she said.

Markham-Cousins has been criticized by some parents because she didn't publicly comment on the incident until five days after it happened. She apologized for the delay, but insisted the school and the district are committed to tackling the issue.

"We're going to face this," she said. Of the incident, she said, "It's racist and its wrong."

Dozens of audience members took to microphones placed around the room during the emotional, yet civil, two hour meeting.

A student named Sonny, who only offered his first name, said he's found Washburn very welcoming. But as an African-American student, he said the incident has hurt him, a lot.

He offered this idea on how the school can move on: "An apology should be made by the four students."

It was a similar refrain that came from several other students as well.

But many students seemed frustrated at the level of outrage the incident has caused.

Senior Maggie Cramer reminded the audience this was all because of the actions of only four students, in a school of 2,000.

"What I'm here to say is that it no way represents our student body. The Washburn I've experienced is a tightly knit community," Cramer said. "We see each other as fellow human beings, different, but human beings none the less."

Many Washburn students spoke about how proud they were of their school, to the cheers of the audience.

But activist Al Flowers told the crowd that was all well and good, but students should know the incident was painful.

"This is not a pep rally," he said. "We know you love your school, but we want to know what you know, particularly me as an African-American, (about) our history."

Other parents and community members urged Minneapolis school officials to consider teaching more about racial strife in the country's history, so students have a better understanding of why the imagery of a dark skinned doll hung by the neck is disturbing to so many people.

After the meeting, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson told reporters history books often fall short in that area. Johnson said the district may address that by making changes to its curriculum.

That will take time she said, but the meeting had a more immediate purpose.

"Our main main goal tonight was to bring people together to hear about how they experienced the situation and to start healing. And I think that's really important."

Johnson refused to comment on the punishment the four students at Washburn faced after the incident, or to release their names, citing federal and state data privacy laws.

Principal Carol Markham-Cousins has spoken with all of the students, and says they're sorry for what they did.

"They are full of remorse, absolutely," she said.

Markham-Counsins says the school will hold more meetings in the near future for students to again voice their opinions on what the school can do to learn from the incident and prevent it from happening again.

---

Follow Tim Post on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/timpostmpr

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.