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The fight at South High was more than a food fight

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The fight at South High was emblematic of adults failing children by not creating a safe environment for learning to thrive.

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.

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  He also tweets @fuguni.


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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 03/01/2013 - 09:00 pm.

    What did they expect when they immigrated?

    As recent immigrants, they are upset that more Somalis aren’t running the school district?

  2. Submitted by BILL MCKECHNIE on 03/02/2013 - 07:48 am.

    Need for new language experts inSomali

    This is utter nonsense. They need to spea k, write, interact and live English. All other immigrants have learned English. French,German,Norwegians, Italians, Chinese and Japanese to name a few. Tell the kids together a grip, become American or go back to Somalia.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 03/02/2013 - 07:26 pm.

      I don’t know where you came from

      but growing up just west of the city in the sixties, my best freind’s mother spoke only German when she started school. I wish I could remember the name of the town, but it was in Western Minnesota. German was spoken everywhere, my great grand father never learned English, he spoke Swedish. I own a house in North East Minneapolis, it was built in 1911 and I bought it from the builders son-in-law. There are notes in the basement written in a language I don’t recognize. My point, this old saw about people learning the language is a myth, often the first and sometimes the second generation never learned to speak the language.

  3. Submitted by Cotty Lowry on 03/02/2013 - 08:08 am.

    Not what I hear from my student

    Mr. Abdulahi states: “The altercation was between approximately 200 Somali-American students and others in a total student body of more than 1,700.” As if it was 200 against 1700.

    Our son attends SW High where he reports fights every week, some in the halls and some right in his French class. However, the fights are almost always between Somali girls. If not between Somali girls in his French class, then it’s between Somalis and African Americans. Although it makes sense that there would be some Somali vs Caucasian fighting, this is not what I am hearing from him at all. Makes one wonder why Somali girls would fight Somali girls in class.

    My son’s Honors English teacher is Somali (I believe) and she is a fabulous teacher whom the students love.

  4. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 03/02/2013 - 11:04 am.


    Ray, point out where in this article it says that Somalis want to run the school district. These students are here. They are not going anywhere. It is not useful to throw them in the water and let them sink. That costs a lot of money–a lot more than finding teachers and staff who speak Somali and can help these kids get a leg up. What they want, as you will see if you read the article, is a chance, an opportunity. If they can’t get it in the public schools, they go off to private ones.
    What costs more–groups of Somalis and apparently Black students who are colliding and wanting the same opportunities (ending in expensive fights that bring in dozens of cops) or help these kids get a good education and figure out how they can get along.
    Our immigrants have always helped generate our prosperity, starting with the first European settlers (who did not know English when they came here except for the Brits). Look around and see the number of prospering Somali stores and shops in some neighborhoods–mine included. I live literally next to a lot of Somalis. They deserve a chance too.

  5. Submitted by Douglas Julius on 03/02/2013 - 12:50 pm.

    What are the expectations?

    What I don’t hear? gratitude. What I do hear? whining.
    I’m offended that this author would slander the Hmong population of St. Paul this way. I was a student at Concordia College with some of the first Hmong college students there. There were no Hmong speaking professors. The Hmong students graduated, worked hard and became the professors, city council members, police officers that are credited with serving their native heritage cultures and helping them become members of the St. Paul community. NOBODY handed them a ready made program to succes; they built if themselves from within. Were their resources allocated to foster this leadership? yes. but it didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t imposed from without.
    If this author wants to allude to the Hmong populations educational track then he would write about the charter schools he oh so briefly mentions. Concordia University is a private school that implemented their program themselves.

    This is a poorly written article based on some illogical conclusions and ignorant understanding of the rudimentary history of the examples he is trying to use.

  6. Submitted by rolf westgard on 03/03/2013 - 04:20 am.


    I don’t know how many different languages are native to Minneapolis students, but I think there are a number. For someone to learn a new language, especially one with different roots than English, well enough to teach in it is not trivial.
    The best thing for Somalis who plan to stay is to learn English. Our students are not going to learn Somali.
    Do the charter schools have Somali speaking teachers?

  7. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 03/02/2013 - 04:44 pm.

    In real life

    almost all the young Somalis I encounter here in Minneapolis speak English, sometimes so well that I wouldn’t know they were Somali if I were talking to them on the phone. At one light rail stop, I heard three Somali teenagers talking to one another *in unaccented English,* complaining about one of their teachers, not for bigotry, but just because they thought he was a grouch. (In other words, they sounded just like Anglo teenagers.)

    I’m not familiar with the situation at South High, but I don’t think that Jamal Abdulahi’s essay should be construed as meaning that Somalis aren’t learning English. If I were to meet a Somali teenager who spoke little or no English, I would assume that he or she was a recent arrival.

  8. Submitted by Cary Johnson on 03/03/2013 - 10:50 am.

    The fault of our government in Washington

    In a rush, after every war, our government brings in refugees from all around the world. Some agencies tell these refugees that they will be given help to settle in our country. Why do these refugees assume they are entitled to many benefits at tax payer expense, rather than to appreciate the help they are given.
    Speaking English should be their first priority. Why do we have to hire Somali speaking teachers. We probably need more Somali interpreters, who are American citizens. Teaching in English should always be the prioriity. That will solve a lot of problems.
    Controlling immigration out of Washington rather than allowing uncontrolled numbers of foreign people after every war to come into our communities is another answer.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/03/2013 - 11:50 am.

    Well, let’s calm down a little.

    I can see language barriers being an issue but from what I’m hearing that’s not the main issue at South High. Typically language issues are more of a problem for adult emigrants than children or adolescents. I can see putting resources into mitigating language issues but I’m not sure calling for more Somali speaking staff and teachers is the best plan. Ultimately the mission in US schools is to teach good English skills. On the other, how many more staff and teachers are we talking about?

    I’m sure there are bi-lingual Somali students, they could be a resource for translation issues, get extra credit etc. When I was in High School I was a student ESL tutor, we had a lot of Russians and some Vietnamese students at that time.

    I think the problem as South is less language based and more cultural. I don’t know what was done but this cultural friction is absolutely predictable and should have been predicted. I can be mitigated if you do some outreach and education up front. The last think you want to is just dump an immigrant population into the schools. As the tensions rose flags should have gone up and steps could be taken. I don’t what was done, but it was clearly inadequate.

  10. Submitted by Mary Martin on 03/06/2013 - 12:43 pm.

    South High and racial ethnic education

    I have many reasons for commenting on South High’s “incident.” I am a retired Metro State faculty member and the frequent chair of its multiracial and ethnic social work program and a grandmother of a South student and a mother of two South graduates. I was also the director of Metro’s Education Program for a short time.

    I appreciate the author’s emphasis on increasing Somali staff and faculty as an important long term solution to improving the education of Somali students. My basic reaction to his post and the many reactions is that this is at least as important for all students of all colors and as which includes the White students like my grandchild. One of the reasons I was so delighted that my grandchild chose South was that I thought it has the best education in Minneapolis for a youngster to become a mature balanced human in a complicated world. I still think that that is true.

    But back to my Metro experience and how it might broaden our discussion. Metro’s social work program takes the issue of multiracial/ethnic education so seriously that it historically it has had faculty representatives of at least the five dominant racial/ethinc groups in the Twin Cities. Thus of the five full time faculty members there is at least one representing African Indian, American Indian, Hmong, Latina and White communities. When a significant community of color comes to the Twin Cities there is a consistent effort to add community faculty that represents them. Typically half of the social work students are of color and the program they graduate from has one of the highest graduation rates on campus.

    The diversity of the faculty is not designed to assist students who do not know English. All of th them have been admitted after a demanding application process and have already more than successfully completed two years of college work. The purpose of the program is to prepare social workers to practice effectively in a diverse racial ethic environment. The students of color relish the support they receive from their professors with a similar racial/ethnic identity. They also appreciate being in a true multiracial environment. Some white students, while initially surprised to find themselves in such an environment where they may well find one white professor, come to relish the first opportunity of their lives to learn what it means to be a minority. The students of color who came to us are well aware of the importance of being a bicutural person and welcome the opportunity of improving their capacity to operate effectively in two worlds – their own community and the dominant White world. The White students who are apt to be swimming in the dominant cuclture are surprised and eventually grateful that they were also not only needed to learn to operate their world but needed extra skills to be in the reapidly growing multiraicl/ethnic world.

    When students graduate from social work they have an exit interview and a paper and pencil evaluation of the program. From of the beginning of the program they tell us that they most value the diverse environment, the racial/ethnic curriculum and the 2 demanding one year long placements-the first in an agency of color, the second in a White controlled organization. These students move on to good jobs and graduate school. I tell this story not out of personal pride- which is actually quite strong. I consider being a part of the social work program the high point of my professional life.

    But I tell it here because there is model that works and can be applied to any educational setting It is a model that requires a genuine acceptance of the profound influence of racial/ethinc oppresion when it is pushed into daily life by significant popultion shifts like the Somali immigration. It is typical to have their unique needs and strengths to be recognized first in schools and social service settings. Twenty five years ago it was Latino and Black social workers who came to Metro and said we need graduates who know how to serve a increasingly diverse Twin Cities. We listened and while we didn’t agree with all of their ideas we worked with them and White social workers to create someting that has worked all these years. the program. Now the author is sayng that South needs to change. The South students are telling us in the only way they know that things need to change. South is listening and will undoubtedly have many ways of changing their situation. I am assuming that they will conclude that this isn’t just a Somali problem but a structural problem. To create a good learning situation for all of our students costs lots of money. I Know. I spent a lot of my time at Metro struggling for resources to run our expensive program.

    As members of the MInneapolis community I am hoping that we will avoid nitpicking about the details of the “incident” and focus on the ways we can change things. They are the same things progressives have been trying to do for years. Look at our positions of relative privilege. I am a White over educated person. What can I do to remind my White sisters and brothers of the need to look hard at how we react to these issues individually and as a group? Do we fight for the resources South needs to continue what I see as their many long years of fine work? Do we engage in electoral politics to get the resources back to the schools especially in the cities? Do we acknowledge that most education, safety and violence problems stem from the poverty that often accompanies racial ethnic differences? May it be so.

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