Complaints of racism, bullying in central Minn. school district prompt calls for change

A student hugs her mother over her shoulder.
Cold Spring resident Andrea Robinson would like to see a stop to the racist comments on social media directed at her daughter Olivia Williams.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

A central Minnesota school district is doing some soul-searching this spring after reports that students of color have been targets of racist bullying.

A parent who says her child was subjected to hateful social media messages aired her frustration in a video that's been viewed thousands of times on social media. It's led to calls for a change of culture in the district — and in the wider community.

Andrea Robinson said she's grown accustomed to dealing with biased and even outright racist behavior toward her Black children in the Rocori public schools. 

Robinson said they’ve been called a racial epithet by other students, and have been singled out unfairly for discipline when they lashed out in response.

Then last fall, Robinson learned that her 15-year-old daughter was the subject of bullying on social media. The disturbing messages in a Snapchat group that she said was created about her daughter mention getting ropes and hanging Black men from trees.

Even worse, she said, is that one of the teens who posted the racist messages was later chosen to receive a Rocori Proud award, which recognizes students whose actions reflect the district's values.

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Robinson recorded an emotional video voicing her frustrations and posted it to Facebook.

"I've always told my kids to take the high road,” she said in the video. “Kids, I'm sorry. Essentially what I've done is silenced you. So today, I'm stepping out against this. I'm not going to be silenced.”

Robinson's video revived a heated and sometimes painful conversation about race in this rural district of roughly 2,000 students, who come from the Stearns County towns of Rockville, Cold Spring and Richmond. It has raised questions about the role schools should play in providing a safe and welcoming atmosphere for all students, in school and online.

Since the police killing of George Floyd and the national reckoning over racism and inequality that followed, many Minnesota school districts are struggling with similar questions.

Robinson’s daughter, Olivia Williams, has been at home doing distance learning for most of the past school year. She's not sure if she wants to go back to in-person school after the online harassment she endured.

“There's a lot of people who are racists,” she said. “Like, they think it's OK now."

Last Monday night, people filled the Rocori Middle School gym for a school board meeting. Some held up signs that read "No more racism" and "Black and Brown lives matter." 

People hold signs while sitting on bleachers.
People hold signs during a Rocori School Board meeting last Monday. Several people addressed the board with concerns about racism and bullying toward students of color.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

About a dozen people spoke at the meeting. Many described an ongoing culture of racism and unconscious bias in the district that they say needs to be tackled head-on.

Erin Bonitto and her husband, Chris, of Cold Spring, are the parents of two Black children. One attends a Rocori school.

"The N-word is used frequently on our buses, on our campuses and in our classrooms,” Erin Bonitto said. “And often, absolutely nothing is done about it by adults who are nearby."

This isn't the first time the Rocori School District has struggled with difficult issues. 

In 2017, the district briefly banned students from having flags or banners in their vehicles in the school parking lot after several students displayed Confederate flags. After students protested that they were being prevented from displaying American flags, the district reversed the policy.

Last year, a Rocori graduate led peaceful protests in front of a house across the street from the high school where a Confederate flag was displayed. 

And the community still bears the scars of a 2003 tragedy, when a Rocori High School freshman brought a gun to school and shot and killed two of his classmates, prompting a countywide discussion on bullying.

The students involved in both of those incidents were white. But roughly 13 percent of students who live in the Rocori School District are not, including a growing population of Latino students.

Two people sit behind a table.
Rocori School Board Chair Jason Wesenberg (left) and Superintendent Brad Kelvington confer during a school board meeting last week.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

School administrators say they're taking the complaints seriously. The school board is meeting Monday night to develop an action plan. Members plan to reexamine the district’s policies on bullying, discipline and the process that students are chosen for the Rocori Proud award. 

Jason Wesenberg, school board chair, said it’s clear there was a failure in that process.

"For that, I apologize to the community and the hurt that this has caused,” Wesenberg said at last week’s meeting. “But I'm very hopeful and encouraged that the outcome of this event will result in a very positive and growth opportunity for our district."

In an emailed response to an interview request, Superintendent Brad Kelvington wrote that the district does not tolerate harassment and bullying and is working to improve on that. 

Its efforts include forming a district-wide equity committee, increasing staff training and student discussions focused on inclusiveness, providing mental health support to students and a tip line where they can anonymously report bullying.

People hold signs on bleachers.
People hold signs during a Rocori School Board meeting on May 17 in Cold Spring, Minn. Several people addressed the board with concerns about racism and bullying toward students of color.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

“We're going to take this very, very seriously,” Kelvington said at last week’s meeting. “Our focus will be on the core values of kindness, tolerance, acceptance, respect, compassion, equity and empathy.”

But change is going to take a community-wide effort, he said, and it’s not a problem confined to Rocori alone.

The University of Minnesota released research in mid-May finding that 41 percent of Minnesota high school students reported having been bullied or harassed in the previous month, Kelvington said. And students of color are three-and-a-half times more likely to be bullied than their white counterparts, he said.

With today’s digital generation, bullying today takes place largely online, Kelvington said. It has detrimental effects on students’ physical and mental health and school performance.

“It has a tremendous harmful impact on students,” he said.

After last week’s meeting, some parents said they hope this can be a turning point.

"There's a lot of work that needs to happen on acceptance and honoring people who look different, think different, believe different,” said Kelly Springer of Cold Spring. “A lot of racism has been allowed to happen for a long time, and it needs to stop."

A picture displayed on a cellphone is held up by a student and her mother.
After a recent incident where their car window was broken in the middle of the night, Olivia Williams shows a photo that her little brother’s classmates posted to show their support for their Cold Spring family.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Meanwhile, Andrea Robinson said since she went public, her family’s car windows have been broken twice. But she also takes comfort in how many people have reached out with overwhelming support.

Last week, fifth graders at Richmond Elementary where Robinson’s youngest son attends made signs to show their support: “Be Kind,” “Spread Love” and “We rise by lifting others,” the signs said.

“I thought we walked this alone — completely alone,” Robinson said. “I think the biggest thing is to know that so many people stand by us, with us and are willing to fight along the journey. And that means a lot."