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Divisive events strain community

Administration investigates recent violence, students attempt to heal racial divides

November 16, 2016

Echo is continuing to investigate the recent incidents at Park, both alleged and confirmed, and will continue to follow events as more information becomes available.

Echo’s Maggie Bahnson, Mimi Fhima, Hannah Leff, Sumaya Mohamed, Devin Raynor, D’ayvian Robinson, Annabella Strathman and Sophie Yarosh contributed to this report along with reporters Raphy Gendler and Sam Orloff.

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Senior accused of pulling freshman’s hijab

The administration’s investigation into an incident involving a senior male allegedly pulling off a freshman female’s hijab Nov. 14 is complete, but will be reopened if new information becomes available, according to assistant principal Kari Schwietering.

“We certainly follow through in the ways that we would any time there’s an incident in our school. So we pulled in students, we had multiple conversations, we pulled in staff and talked with staff. We looked to video (footage) and investigated the situation,” Schwietering said. “By the end of (Monday) we actually were able to pull both students involved and both were willing to be part of a mediation.”

Schwietering said, at this time, the senior will not face suspension.

The freshman involved said she was surprised by the occurrence of the incident at Park.

“I thought this school would be a great school. I hated drama so that is why I came here. I left my other school because it was too much drama and too much fights, so I came here looking for a fresh start,” the freshman said.

Schwietering said the mediation process considerably reduced tensions between the two parties.

“By the end of the mediation it ended in what I would say is a positive place, where both students felt supported and both students communicated that they felt supported and safe moving through the building and that’s where that day ended,” Schwietering said.

The student who reported her hijab being pulled off, a freshman, said the senior male pulled off her hijab in the hallway. She said her friends made her aware of the situation.

“I was in the hallway on Monday talking with my friend…and I just felt a tug (on) my neck…and I thought it was an accident so I brushed it off. So I went to class, but then I see my friends running towards a room knocking on the door saying ‘why did you pull her qamar?…An accident, what do you mean?’… He just pulled your qamar off.’ And that’s when I saw that my qamar was off and my head and hair was showing, and I put it back on quickly,” the student said. “I was embarrassed so I went to class, sat down and I don’t know what happened. I heard the story from my friends (and) what they said to (the senior),” she said.

Echo confirmed the word “qamar,” used by the freshman involved in the incident, is Somali for the word “hijab.”

The freshman alleged her friends heard the senior say “because I can” when asked why he pulled the student’s hijab.

The senior said he did not touch the freshman’s hijab.

“I did not rip off (or) touch (the freshman’s) hijab. I was simply walking to my class, regular day. And then I was confronted about it multiple times throughout the day, went down to the office, talked to the counselor and a couple GLCs and actually had a sort of one-on-one talk with (the freshman) herself later on in the day (Monday),” the senior said.

The freshman said she was frustrated administrators did not initially believe her.

“I have two eyewitnesses who saw it directly happen but you still have to go towards the camera to get the truth, like you won’t believe what my friends say, you’re not giving me the benefit of the doubt,” the freshman said.

The senior, who spoke at the open student discussion Nov. 15 in C350, said he understands students are angry.

“I understand people have sensitivities to the issue. I understand where the anger and the resentment come from. I said I hope people understand this is not something that I would do, and that in the future I hope that they can take the time to speak with me personally on a one-to-one level and just understand that what happened happened,” the senior said. “We don’t know the full story; we can’t jump to conclusions. The people who know me know the truth (that) I wouldn’t do anything like this. The people who don’t know me want to continue having feelings of resentments toward me — they’ll just continue to have those feelings and there is nothing I can really do about it.”

Meyers said although policies exist to respond to such situations, the nuances of the developments require a more tailored approach.

“We have policies in terms of defining what (an incident) is and a consequence,” Meyers said. “I don’t think we have a policy that would say, ‘How do we deal with the humanity and the people, and how do we try to restore a relationship, either there or within the larger community?’”

Meyers also said cases like these require a unique approach.

“These incidences that are involving the safety and the freedoms of students are always going to need a different solution than we’ve had before,” Meyers said.

Meyers said he has viewed security camera footage.

“I’ve seen the majority of the footage. I’ve seen some footage of both events (the alleged incident of hijab being pulled and the fight between more than two students that allegedly stemmed from social media conflicts), but I haven’t viewed all of it,” Meyers said.

Schwietering said the alleged incident was not captured by security cameras.

“I could not say whether or not it happened or not. There is not video from us or anyone else (that shows) the incident, so we don’t have video of the incident,” Schwietering said.

Echo has requested access to security camera footage from Nov. 14. The request is pending.

Meyers said students expressed confusion about the existence of security footage.

“I have not viewed (footage of the investigation) recently. I know at one point there was confusion about where it happened, so I think that’s where people are saying, ‘is there footage or not?’,” Meyers said.

Schwietering said the administration will continue to investigate if new evidence is found.

“If things continue to happen or things continue to surface, then we continue to look into those and address them as they come up,” Schwietering said.

Schwietering said the administration dealt with the issue according to school policy. She also said the students’ families were involved.

“We have been in conversation with both families, and so this situation between the two individuals I think was responded to and dealt with in the ways that both parties felt comfortable and then that’s where that day ended,” Schwietering said.

The freshman said she wants the senior to apologize.

“(Grade Level Coordinator Kiki Christenson) pulled me out of gym class seventh period and I sat with (the senior) and all he said was that he maybe slightly brushed me. He finally admitted, ‘I maybe slightly brushed you but I don’t remember what happened.’ He did not apologize to me so I’m still waiting for that apology,” the freshman said.

The freshman alleged that Christenson said “we’ll see what we can do” when the complaint was filed.

Christenson said she followed appropriate procedure.

“A couple girls had come down to the office. I was called down to take their statements. I took their statements and referred it to administration,” Christenson said.

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Students organize open forum on race relations

An open discussion for students was held in C350 Nov. 15. An announcement was made via intercom around 9 a.m., and the discussion took place from first through fifth periods.

According to the freshman whose hijab was allegedly pulled off, she was not involved in organizing the discussion.

More than 100 students, mostly of color, were present for the conversation. Seniors Jayneishia Buckner and Dah Manique Evans helped facilitate discussion.

Senior Hibaq Gelle, who attended the discussion, said she was surprised to hear of the alleged incident.

“I never thought it would happen at our school. You see it online and you see it in the media of it happening in other states, other cities even, and you just wouldn’t think it would happen here because I would like to believe we have a well-rounded education system and our student body is very exposed to diversity,” Gelle said.

Junior Izzi Gilbert Burke said she found the accusations to be incompatible with her knowledge of the accused senior.

“Personally I think it was a misunderstanding and I have never found (the senior) to be that type of person. When stories are told, they can be blown out of proportion,” Gilbert Burke said. “I don’t want to discredit (the freshman). If it did happen, that would be unacceptable and should not be overlooked.”

Senior Zameahia Ismail said she was concerned students do not feel safe at school.

“People come to school and you think that they are OK because they have a smile on their face and they are nice to everyone and they are treating each other with respect, but at the end of the day you don’t know what people have been through,” Ismail said.

Superintendent Rob Metz sent an email to all parents, discussing the recent challenges in the wake of the election.

“We are addressing incidents individually, in accordance with school procedures and district policy,” Metz’s email said.

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Physical altercations occur, one related to forum

Schwietering and Meyers confirmed two incidents between students Nov. 15. They said one was related to the conversation in C350, while another was unrelated. Schwietering said the unrelated fight stemmed from social media.

“(The altercation) involved more people (and) was not related at all to the conversations or to (the alleged incident). It was actually a (previous and unrelated) social media argument or post,” Schwietering said. “The second conflict was reported that it was (related) because of a conversation that did occur regarding that situation from the day before.”

Meyers said despite student speculation that there may have been up to six fights, there were only two: one between two students and one that included more than two.

“What’s amplifying it is the level of concern that students have for both what they are seeing outside of our school, in our nation and what some of the smaller things and bigger things that they are seeing at our school,” Meyers said.

Police Liaison Max Peltola said extra police were present to deal with altercations between students.

“There was an altercation with multiple people involved, so at the time there was other squads just to control the situation and it was handled pretty quickly,” Peltola said.

Meyers said he was in contact with police and they were present as an extra precaution and did not need to intervene in any altercations.

“I’ve talked to a couple more officers just because (we) had some assistance here yesterday,” Meyers said. “Most of what happened yesterday was dealt with by our liaison officer, and that’s usually how it works.”

Peltola said there has not been a clear increase in fighting frequency.

“I haven’t noticed an uptake in fight numbers. We get altercations every once in a while between students that have a disagreement,” Peltola said.

Students were not allowed hall passes in the afternoon Nov. 15.

Senior Audrey Scalici said she found out about the policy at the beginning of her sixth period study hall.

“I am not sure exactly why, but I would assume the rule is because of the discussion that’s been going on in C350 and how people are concerned that the fights that have been going on today are connected to that,” Scalici said. “I guess the school feels like the hallways aren’t safe today.”

Schwietering said all fights and altercations were handled according to school policy. She said students directly involved in the altercation that was unrelated to the C350 conversation were suspended. Some suspensions may still occur, according to Schwietering.

“I wouldn’t be able to accurately say that suspensions have occurred for (all involved students). What I am able to say is that people were not here yesterday, so the people involved were sent home,” Schwietering said.

Senior Ernesto Garcia said he was involved in an altercation Nov. 15. He said he acted in defense of another student.

“As the guy, I stood up for the girl (involved in this altercation),” Garcia said.

Garcia said after a student punched him, he picked up the student, threw him on the ground and punched him repeatedly. He was present at school the following day, Nov. 16, and said he has not been suspended.

“There was too much going on (for me to be suspended),” Garcia said.

Garcia said he discourages fighting, but his emotions were running high.  

“Fighting is not the way to go, but sometimes it’s a quick instinct. No one should do it and I didn’t get suspended and that’s because yesterday there was so much going on, there was more than just one fight,” Garcia said. “I got the benefit of the doubt.”

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Social media impacts disagreements

In addition to in-school events, Meyers said disagreements have also stemmed from social media.

“There have been concerns about some student comments to one another on social media,” Meyers said. “We were hearing concerns, both from students and parents about things that were being exchanged on Facebook, which I know is creating tension among students.”

Prior to the Nov. 8 election, a student reposted a photo on Instagram of students prior to a football game with a sign in support of Donald Trump’s candidacy, criticizing the students pictured for making a joke out of the campaign. The photo has received 148 comments, many of which featured intense argument. A later Instagram post from the same student, featuring the same photo,
received 36 comments.

Students pose for a picture prior to a football game against Benilde-St. Margaret's. They participated in a "redneck" dress code. The photo created tension on Instagram and Facebook. Used with written permission from Philip Djerf.

Students pose for a picture prior to a football game against Benilde-St. Margaret’s. They participated in a “redneck” dress code. The photo created tension on Instagram and Facebook. Used with written permission from Philip Djerf.

In a phone message sent to parents Nov. 15, Meyers cited the results of the Nov. 8 election as a cause for current tension.

“While some are celebrating, others are concerned, even fearful,” Meyers said.

Meyers said some students expressed concern about the photo.

“We also have a situation that people want to discuss, still, about a photograph where students who had dressed up for a theme day,” Meyers said.

Arguments in the Facebook group “SLP Class of 2017” have been going on for several days in light of recent events, according to Student Council President Megan Aune, who runs the group.

“Based on the incident that happened Monday, kids were calling that student out on the group and people were posting for and against it (and) defending their friends and people were getting offended by what other people were saying on the group or what was said by other people,” Aune said.

Meyers said social media has also contributed to rumors and misinformation regarding the events of the past few days.

“There’s a lot of information that’s passing through social media right now, both applying to these incidences and both commenting on people’s thoughts on these incidences,” Meyers said. “I think it’s important for all of us to pause when we see this and for all of us to question what we know and where the source is coming from.”

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Police called to handle bus incident

An altercation between a student and bus driver in the morning of Nov. 16 is unrelated to the alleged incident between the senior and freshman, according to Meyers. Meyers said the incident involved a student running to catch his bus.

“There was a student who was, late to get to their bus stop, and the bus drove away, I mean that’s the simple definition of it,” Meyers said.

Meyers said the situation would not normally garner such attention, but its effect was amplified given  preceding events.

“Had (this altercation) happened a month ago, I think it is something that would have been viewed differently, and I don’t mean that it was incorrectly viewed today,” Meyers said. “But I feel like with a heightened awareness and a heightened sensitivity, it brought more attention to the conversation.”

Ann Casey, general manager of St. Louis Park Transportation, said she is looking into the situation.

“I have not had an opportunity to sit down one-on-one with the driver to finish our investigation completely. I can tell you that what I know is the driver felt threatened and he was concerned about the younger students on the bus, that is what I know at this point,” Casey said. “ I have not reviewed videotape nor have I had the opportunity to thoroughly talk this over with the driver.”

Djerf said the driver told a black student who boarded the bus that he wouldn’t wait for him to catch the bus.

“(The student) is African-American and he got on the bus and he went to the back of it and as he was walking back onto the bus the bus driver told (him) ‘I’m not waiting another second for you anymore; we’re not going to wait at your stop anymore. You have to be at your stop when we’re here otherwise we’re just going to drive away,” Djerf said.

Meyers said the involved students wondered if the situation with the bus driver was racially charged.

“Some students were upset because they thought ‘Is race a factor in this?’ And I’m not gonna say here today, because I don’t know whether it was or not,” Meyers said. “What I do want to say is that we want students to get to school. We want students to be on time to their bus stop, and we want our students to be respected, both on our buses and our school.”

Djerf said students on the bus were led to believe race was a factor in the incident.

“(After the black student boarded), another student, who was white, (said) ‘but you wait like 30 seconds for me everyday.’ The bus driver told (the black student) to sit in the front of the bus, and the bus driver was talking to him but he wasn’t responding. And this apparently made my bus driver feel threatened,” Djerf said.

Djerf said other students on the bus accused the bus driver of racism.

“All of (the student’s) friends walked up and they were talking with him and they were like ‘why is that fair that you won’t wait for him but you’ll wait 30 seconds for this white kid?’ and they were accusing him of being racist and they were saying ‘this is what is happening because Trump’s president you think you can do this now,’” Djerf said.

Djerf said several police cars arrived and some parents came, including the father of the student who allegedly arrived late to the bus.

“It was really confusing because more and more cop cars kept showing up and I really didn’t understand why because I don’t think it’s a crime to not respond to a bus driver,” Djerf said. “I’m sure the student felt very overwhelmed and uncomfortable by being called out for being one second late. I really don’t think it’s fair and I don’t understand how my bus driver was made to feel uncomfortable by this.”

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Administration, district hope to heal

Schwietering, Meyers and Metz said they hope the atmosphere at Park will improve.

“I don’t think this is going to be a short-term experience, you know. The good news for St. Louis Park is we already have a lot of things in place, we have a long history of diversity of all kinds and working very well together,” Metz said.

Echo will continue to follow events as more information becomes available.

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