Somali students describe pattern of harassment

Nasteho Dini, Ifrah Abukar, Suda Salah, Madina Ali
From front to back: Nasteho Dini, Ifrah Abukar, Suda Salah and Madina Ali, on March 19, 2015. All are seniors at Tech High School in St. Cloud, Minn.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Leaders at St. Cloud Tech High School met with Somali parents, community elders and students on Thursday, the day after Somali-American students walked out to protest their treatment.

The students said they were acting in frustration over unequal discipline at the school and harassment by other students. Now they are waiting to see how the school responds to their concerns.

In interviews, students involved in the walkout described the incident that set off their protest — involving a photo of one of them, posted with a slur on social media — and said it was just part of a larger pattern of behavior.

"On a daily basis, we're shown that we're not welcome," said Nasteho Dini, 18. She said she feels like an outsider at her own school because of harassment from other students.

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"We go there to learn, not to be oppressed," she said. She said other students call Somali-American students members of ISIS, the terrorist organization, and pull off their headscarves.

Hodo Nour posted this photo on Facebook
St. Cloud Technical High School student Hodo Nour posted this Snapchat screenshot on her Facebook page. She said another student took the photo of her during lunch and posted it on Snapchat with the included caption.
Facebook | Used with permission courtesy of Hodo Nour

Last week, someone posted on Snapchat a photo taken during lunch at Tech. It was of a Somali-American student, Hodo Nour, who was using a wheelchair after breaking her leg last month. A caption said she was "disabled in ISIS." The photo circulated among Tech students.

When Ifrah Abukar saw it, she was outraged. The 19-year-old senior said it felt like a breaking point after years of harassment at the school.

"Enough is enough," she said. "I had to do something about it."

She and several friends organized the walkout and protest. Among their other complaints, they said the school has not made efforts to diversify the staff.

Dini said school officials told the students they'd get a response to their requests soon. The principal, Adam Holm, also made an announcement to the entire school, conveying the protesters' concerns.

Suda Salah, a 19-year-old senior, said students who harass others might stop if their actions resulted in discipline.

"I don't really blame the students, to be honest," Salah said. "Because it's the staff members, the principal, the teachers that are giving the kids power to do that in school. If every kid knows there will be consequences when they do something, they wouldn't act like that in the school."

Spokesperson Tami DeLand said the school district has a strong policy against harassment, and all complaints are investigated.

"The administration takes very seriously any reports of bullying, defamation, anything of that they take very, very seriously," she said.

Tech has been accused in the past of failing to respond effectively to harassment. Five years ago, the Council on American-Islamic Relations got a federal agency to investigate complaints of harassment in St. Cloud schools. A spokesperson for the St. Cloud school district says there was no finding of discrimination or harassment, and the schools voluntarily agreed to work to improve relations.

Jerry Von Korff, a longtime school board member and former chairman, said the district has worked hard to be more inclusive. Still, he said, the students wouldn't walk out if they didn't see a problem.

"When somebody cries out and says you're not doing good enough, we don't want to beat them down," he said. "We want to work with them, listen to them and make this a better place."

Tech High School in St. Cloud, Minn.
Tech High School in St. Cloud, Minn., on March 19, 2015.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Outside the school, two white juniors who declined to be identified said they thought the problems are more about high school students acting out than a pattern of racism. But they said students should work on their relationships across racial and ethnic lines.

Abdi Kulane agreed that students and others need to share views more. He unsuccessfully ran for City Council in St. Cloud last year and was at the meeting at the school Thursday morning.

"This event actually gives us a reason to talk, a reason to actually share issues, a reason to reason with each other, a reason to look for a solution," he said. "So about this incident, I think it's an opportunity for us to come together."

But there may be more protests in the future. A 19-year-old Tech student, Redwan Mahamed Shire, was arrested Wednesday at the school. St. Cloud police said the man pushed and threatened school security. The protest organizers said he was just trying to join them.

Students said they'll protest again if charges against him aren't dropped.