Minneapolis South High officials look to move beyond brawl

Police officials
Police officials monitored the parking lot at South High School after a fight broke out at the school in Minneapolis, Minn. Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. Hundreds of students got into a brawl at the high school after a food fight spun out of control. Four people suffered minor injuries.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Classes were back in session at Minneapolis South High School on Friday, the day after a lunch room brawl involving hundreds of students.

South High officials say they are trying to move beyond yesterday's fight, which some students say was caused by racial tension at the school. The fight has other districts examining how they respond to problems among groups of students.

In the hours after the fight, a few students told MPR News something like this was bound to happen.

Junior Adnan Farah, who is Somali, said racial tension has been building at South High between Somali students, and African American and Native American students. Farah said school leaders had been warned.

"Students went to them and told them that this problem was going to happen. This has been boiling up, a racial issue," Farah said. "It's not one-on-one, or two-on-one. It's a big thing."

A statement today from Minneapolis Public Schools said district leaders, "Take seriously concerns from students and community members about a possible racial component" to the fight. The statement said law enforcement and school officials are looking into factors leading to the incident.

"We're doing investigation with individual students, with witnesses, with staff, looking at surveillance tape, really just trying to make sure we have all the pieces of the story," said Julie Young-Burns, with South High's office of student support services.

This has been boiling up, a racial issue. It's not one-on-one, or two-on-one. It's a big thing."

Young-Burns acknowledges there has been talk lately of tension between different groups of students at South High.

She said school leaders are working to figure out exactly who is not getting along, and what sort of damage to student relationships the fight may have caused.

The school is also planning future conversations so students can discuss conflicts in the school without coming to blows, Young-Burns said.

"It's also creating a space where if a tension develops that you have a way to resolve it, to feel heard, to have your needs met, to peacefully come to some sort of resolution, or to agree that we might not agree," she said.

Like Minneapolis, the St. Paul Public Schools district has a large and growing population of minority students. School leaders are well aware that can create conflict among different groups of students.

Michelle Walker, chief of staff at St. Paul Public Schools, is relieved St. Paul hasn't dealt with anything that has risen to the level of yesterday's incident at Minneapolis South High.

"Obviously, we can never say never," Walker said. "But I do think that we feel in a good position to be able to have a way to respond, and a process and tools to refer to."

South High fight
Police and emergency vehicles reported to South High School after a fight broke out at the school in Minneapolis, Minn. Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Walker said the St. Paul district has begun a five-year project to train all of its staff on how best to have tough but meaningful conversations on racial tension in school, and how to make schools welcoming places for all students.

At the state level, Nancy Riestenberg, school climate specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education, encourages schools to create activities that help students of different races and cultural groups get to know each other better.

Riestenberg said these efforts still won't end all of the problems.

"In spite of all of those kinds of activities, it is very possible that any school will face some kind of eruption," she said.

Riestenberg's advice for South High is to use Thursday's fight as a way into conversations about conflicts at the school, and how to move beyond them.

"Going forward the school can actually be strengthened by something even as disastrous as what happened yesterday at South," Riestenberg said.

Leaders at South High say they will continue to meet with students next week to discuss the aftermath of the fight. School district officials say they are planning a parent and community meeting sometime in the near future.

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