More than a month after a comment disparaging Muslims appeared on his Facebook account, Columbia Heights school Board Member Grant Nichols formally submitted his resignation Tuesday night. Nichols maintains he was not the person who made the post, and Twin Cities Muslim leaders say they believe him.
A post on Sept. 6 referred to the bathroom habits of Muslims as "unsanitary."
As the comment spread across the Internet, a backlash ensued. At Columbia Heights High School, students walked out of class. Gov. Mark Dayton visited and praised the students while imploring Nichols to resign. And at a school board meeting three weeks ago, dozens of students, teachers and Columbia Heights residents took turns criticizing Nichols, calling him an embarrassment to their proudly diverse community.
At the time, Nichols declined to step down. But in recent days, he reversed course and reached out to Muslim leaders.
At a news conference ahead of Tuesday night's school board meeting, Nichols said he refused to quit at first because he didn't write the offensive post and didn't feel he should be punished for it.
He blames a co-worker who got hold of his phone. But Nichols said he takes responsibility for the comment and said he's stepping down because it caused so much anger and division in Columbia Heights.
"It's affecting our community and our city. And that, I don't like to see, so I wanted this turmoil done with. And if it takes me to end it, then that's what needs to happen," he said.
As Nichols spoke to reporters, three Twin Cities Muslim leaders stood beside him. All said it's time to move forward, and they believe Nichols' assertion that he was not the author of the post.
Shah Khan, president of the Islamic Center of Minnesota, said Nichols made a sacrifice in stepping down, something that should be applauded.
"Who else would understand better than the people of an Abrahamic faith the importance of sacrifice?" he said. "What he has sacrificed today he should be proud of, his family should be proud of. He is creating a new era, and creating an example in the community of Minnesota where people can look back to this day and say that we have achieved something."
Ayan Jama, a 16-year-old Columbia Heights High School sophomore, said she doubts Nichols' sincerity. Jama also said Muslim leaders shouldn't praise Nichols for resigning.
"He's like, 'let me save face and do it now,' when he could have done it last week or the week before or even when he got called out for the comments," she said. "He's just saying it now just to save face."
After the news conference Nichols took his seat on the school board for the last time. He praised the students who protested last month and said he bears no ill will toward anyone. Nichols also read a brief statement where he made amends for the Facebook post.
"I apologize to them for the hurt it caused. I have learned a lot more about cultural differences in this experience," he said.
With that, Nichols left the room and chatted amiably in the lobby with Khan and other Muslim leaders, people he says he would have never met otherwise.
Nichols said he plans to remain active in Columbia Heights civic affairs and hopes to set up a farmer's market in the community.
School Board Chair John Larkin said there will likely be a special election sometime early next year to fill Nichols' seat. That will follow an already scheduled January election for another open seat on the board.