Hopkins High School black students' suspensions, charges dismissed

Hopkins High School
Hopkins High School, where two black students were suspended after protesting a racial incident this winter.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

The Hopkins School District and an attorney for two students who were suspended and charged with misdemeanors this spring have reached an agreement.

The two parties announced Thursday that prosecutors have dismissed criminal charges against the two black students, and the school has overturned their suspensions. The two students were suspended after they protested a racially-charged incident at the school.

The district is also taking steps to improve race relations at the high school.

In February, some white members of the Hopkins ski team dressed up as rappers for what some called a "Ghetto Spirit Day" with gold chains, doo-rags and sagging pants. Some black students who felt school administrators were unresponsive to their complaints, put up posters in protest. An administrator took them down, and when two black students went to reclaim the posters, a school police officer was called.

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According to police, one of the students put his hand on the officer's chest, but the students say the confrontation was not physical. The two students were later charged with petty misdemeanors and suspended for three days.

The boys' attorney is Nekima Levy-Pounds, who runs the civil rights legal clinic at the University of St. Thomas Law School. She said the students felt like a double-standard had been applied because white students weren't punished for their conduct.

"They felt that African American culture was being mocked. They were ashamed and embarrassed by the way the ski team portrayed students of color," Levy-Pounds said. "The result of their taking a stance for justice was that they wound up on the wrong end of the disciplinary system."

In April, two months after the confrontation in the office, Levy-Pounds said nearly 200 students participated in a walkout at the high school. The walkout was captured on video by Ralph Crowder of Parents Voices Talk Radio. Levy-Pounds said the frustrations of students of color boiled over.

"What came to light in this situation is really the culmination of challenges that have been happening and that students have been experiencing over the past several years," Levy-Pounds said. "I think part of what occurred is the fact that the school increased in terms of its level of racial and ethnic diversity more quickly than it was able to create an infrastructure and environment that is supportive of students of color."

Nekima Levy-Pounds
Nekima Levy-Pounds is a civil rights attorney at the University of St. Thomas who represented two black students suspended after protesting a racial incident at Hopkins High School this winter. Charges against her clients have been dismissed.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Black students make up 19 percent of the Hopkins High School student body, but they accounted for 54 percent of suspensions in the 2011-2012 school year.

And though suspensions of black students were down slightly from the previous year, the district had listed as one of its goals to further analyze why males and students of color were over-represented in referrals for discipline.

Levy-Pounds said her clients are pleased with the agreement reached with the district that they no longer will have the suspensions on their records, and don't have to go through a criminal process. They've also had a chance to share their perspectives through a series of conversations at the high school.

The district declined to make anyone available for an interview, but referred MPR News to Paula Forbes, a consultant who's worked with the school board for several years.

Forbes, an African-American attorney and former general counsel for the Minneapolis Public Schools, was asked to facilitate a discussion with Hopkins students after the walkout.

"We heard them. And when I say 'we' I'm speaking for the administration who said, 'We heard you. You practiced civil disobedience and although we wish we could have prevented that from happening, it happened. You did it because you needed to be heard. We are committed to create ways in which you will be heard," Forbes said.

Forbes worked with students to plan a "World Cafe" in which 50 students from a diverse range of backgrounds told their stories to each other in early May.

Forbes said a smaller group of students invited Hopkins staff to engage in two hours of conversation Wednesday afternoon.

"It was really important to the students to have some conversation with the staff prior to fall so we could really work on some objectives over the summer," Forbes said.

Forbes said a small group of students will keep working with district staff during summer break so they can bring about some of the changes they're seeking this fall. One goal is to make sure there's a place for discussion well before things escalate to the point of discipline and criminal charges.