The St. Cloud Area School District has once again caught the attention of the federal Department of Education over its treatment of Somali-American students.
Civil rights officials with the U.S. Department of Education and the Justice Department are visiting the district this week to check its progress on a four-year-old agreement in which the district declared it would work to reduce harassment. Their visit comes as the district is dealing with a fresh round of similar problems.
The federal visitors listened and took notes Monday night as parents and a few students described tensions between the district's Somali and white students that sometimes dissolve into bullying and harassment.
"I get bullied because I'm black. Or because I'm Somali. Or because I'm brown. I get bullied because I wear a scarf. I pray — I'm a Muslim — and I get called a terrorist," Nasteho Dini told the crowd. "You guys don't know how that feels."
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Dini, a student at St. Cloud Technical High School, organized a walkout of her classmates in March after another student posted a photo on social media showing a Somali-American girl in a wheelchair with a caption suggesting the girl was part of the terror group ISIS. After the walkout, a task force of Somali community leaders met with school officials to demand the school board make changes to curb harassment.
"We need to make sure that every child, irrespective of their color or background or nationality ... comes to school safe, and they leave the school safe," said Hassan Yussuf, who is leading the task force. "The school needs to make sure that that happens."
This is not the first time federal officials have studied what's going on in St. Cloud public schools. The Department of Education investigated allegations of harassment and discrimination against Somali-American students in the school district five years ago. In a 2011 agreement with the department, St. Cloud schools pledged to work toward reducing harassment.
"At this point, I think it's disappointing we're still here," said Dennis Whipple, chair of the St. Cloud school board. "I feel for parents and kids who really want student achievement and education and how critical that is to their lives. I really am hopeful that we're going to work through this together. It's going to take some time, but we're going to come out stronger and better on the other end."
Since the walkout, Whipple and St. Cloud Superintendent Willie Jett have met with Somali community elders. Whipple acknowledged that the district is still dealing with the issues raised in the 2011 agreement.
Yussuf, the task force leader, said the Department of Education had an opportunity to make change when it signed the agreement with the district.
"But they did not and the school did not implement them and there was no redress and enforcement from the department and that has lead to what we are seeing now," he said. "The same issues are still happening, and we need a solution."
Monday's event was organized by the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. School district leaders who joined in the discussion didn't attend the meeting in their official capacity.
Tami DeLand, a spokesperson for the St. Cloud Area School District, said CAIR did not inform the district about the meeting. Officials heard about it, she said, through media reports.
Federal officials will meet with students, administration and teachers in the St. Cloud Area School District Tuesday.