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The fight at South High was more than a food fight

It was emblematic of adults failing children by not creating a safe environment for learning to thrive.

The fight at South High was emblematic of adults failing children by not creating a safe environment for learning to thrive.
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Sudden chaos broke out in the Minneapolis South High cafeteria on Feb. 14 during the third lunch period. It involved 200-400 students, dozens of teachers and school staff. Food items and bottles were thrown. Students kicked, punched, pushed and shoved each other while teachers and school staff tried to break up the fight with little success. It took an untold number of Minneapolis police officers utilizing pepper spray and taser guns to finally end the chaos. The altercation was between approximately 200 Somali-American students and others in a total student body of more than 1,700.

Jamal Abdulahi
Jamal Abdulahi

While the community is lucky no one sustained serious physical injuries, the incident inflicted deep emotional wounds onto the community. Children are under investigation, and parents are anxious about what it means for their families. Some children are too afraid to go to school. Only around 600 of more than 1,700 students showed up for school the day after the incident.

Simmering problem to the forefront

Moreover, this terrible school-safety incident brought a long-term simmering problem to the forefront. It was a clear manifestation of school teachers and staff not being reflective of the student body — a characteristic South High shares with other schools in the district.

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Minneapolis Public Schools have the largest number of Somali-American students in the state. Estimates run from 3,000 to 5,000. There are only a handful of Somali-speaking teachers and staff in the district. The result is Somali-American students feeling alienated and disconnected from the school environment.

This is not to insinuate negligence in the Minneapolis school district, because there have been some efforts made, albeit meager, to address the problem. For example, South High hired a part-time Somali linguist to teach Somali.

Too few Somali-speaking teachers, staff

The bigger problem is an insufficient number of Somali-speaking teachers and administrators in the district. This problem has been known for quite some time, and there are a number of actions that must be taken to help prevent similar incidents in the Minneapolis school district.

  • First is to create an environment in the district office so current Somali-speaking staff believe that there is a career growth for them. Opportunity for vertical mobility is critical for any organization to foster and retain talent. Conversation with the current district staff painted an environment where political connection and internal networks determine promotion. One staff member stated “the culture at the Minneapolis school district office simply does not encourage career growth for new Americans.”  This has led to the lack of a single Somali-speaking principal in a district with the highest concentration of Somali students.
  • Second is for the school board to take tangible and meaningful actions in highlighting disparities and finding resources to rectify them. School Board Member Hussein Samatar articulated a number of challenges, including Somali-American parents withdrawing children from the district in record numbers into charter schools catering to Somalis. No coherent policy has emerged to address this. Nor have resources been allocated to support parents despite amble evidence showing this as a key success indicator for a child’s education.
  • The third — and arguably the most significant — action is for the state of Minnesota to help develop and train Somali-speaking teachers and staff. The state already invests collaborative education programs targeting traditionally underserved communities. There was $1.056 million in Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget recommendation to support Collaborative Urban Educator (CUE) in fiscal year 2012-2013. In St. Paul, Concordia University has been training teachers with South East Asian heritage to help breach the gap between public schools and students whose language is other than English at home. A similar program should be implemented in a local college with a campus in Minneapolis to help prevent similar chaotic incidents to the one that occurred on Feb. 14 at South High.

The fight at South High was more than a food fight. It was emblematic of adults failing children by not creating a safe environment for learning to thrive. Framing it as the result of cultural differences and misunderstanding is an easy synopsis to a perfect case study in the state of affairs in one of the largest school districts of our state.

Jamal Abdulahi is a state director with Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) and chairs the Somali Caucus of the DFL. He focuses on political development of New Americans. He can be reached at Abdu0037@umn.edu.  He also tweets @fuguni.

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