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Recent assault case reveals opposing Harrison Center narratives: ‘Our kids need something like this’ vs. ‘It has to be dismantled’

While two former Harrison principals call “fresh start” efforts a failure, the current principal says, “I’ll fight tooth and nail to keep this place open.” 

While two former Harrison Education Center principals have left disillusioned, members of the center’s current leadership team say their efforts to better serve these students are being overlooked.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

On May 22 a student physically assaulted a teaching aide at the Harrison Education Center. The incident landed that aide, Mohammed Dukuly, in critical condition at the hospital and drew media attention to the school.

Corey Burfield
Corey Burfield

Later that week, the student accused of assaulting Dukuly, 18-year-old Corey Burfield of St. Paul, made his first court appearance in Hennepin County District Court. He had been charged with one count of first-degree assault and one count of third-degree assault. As laid out in the case report, according to surveillance video that captured the incident Burfield approached Dukuly and made “a grab for his belt where his school radio and keys to the building are kept” before shoving Dukuly into a wall and continuing to beat him on the ground.

At the court hearing, District Judge William Koch decided to release Burfield from custody without posting bail, so long as he and his mother agreed to follow a number of requirements: electronic home monitoring, no contact with Dukuly or his family and that Burfield would meet with a mental health professional within two weeks. Outside the courthouse, Dukuly’s family members shared hopeful updates of his recovery but told reporters they were largely disappointed in the outcome.

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Meanwhile, the story of the center’s former principal, Monica Fabre, who was also assaulted by a student, has resurfaced. Fabre and one of her successors, Carol Markham-Cousins, are both taking this renewed focus on Harrison as an opportunity to call on the district to shut the center down and find a way to better serve its students. The school, located in north Minneapolis, is Minneapolis Public Schools’ only federal level IV setting high school, designated to serve students with the most challenging emotional and behavioral disabilities in a space separate from the general education population. It underwent a “fresh start” under Fabre’s leadership in 2015, after being identified as the subject of a federal complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division asking the department to investigate and possibly even close the program. 

Yet while two former Harrison principals have left disillusioned, members of the center’s current leadership team say their efforts to better serve these students are being overlooked. 

Former school leaders call ‘fresh start’ a failure

Monica Fabre says she was disappointed to learn that staff had been re-equipped with walkie-talkies and keys after she’d gone on medical leave following the assault that left her concussed and traumatized. Those are two items that potentially made Dukuly a target in the recent assault case — and that Fabre had made a point to take away from all teachers and support staff.

“I took those away all of the walkies. I took away all of the teachers’ keys … because I wasn’t running a prison,” she said. “I took those away because our children, when you confine them like prisoners, when you confine them like animals, then they fight because they go into survival mode.”

In addition, during her tenure, Fabre says she unlocked all of the doors at Harrison, asked for more administrative support at the school level, and demanded that the district help re-evaluate every single student’s special education status and federally mandated personalized learning plan. But her requests never materialized during her time with the district, she said.

Imam Mohammed Dukuly
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Imam Mohammed Dukuly, Mohammed Dukuly’s uncle, told reporters Dukuly was making progress in his recovery, but he was disappointed in the judge’s verdict.

According to Fabre, the most recent assault case is proof that a hallmark of the fresh-start process — having all staff in the building reapply for their positions, to ensure better alignment of vision and qualifications — fell apart after her departure as well. She says Dukuly was “one of the people I had not hired back.”

“When I was hired, I was hired to be a change agent,” she said. “But the Minneapolis Public Schools system intended to hire someone with a black body, but they could not respect my black mind. No one wanted to talk about the true issue of institutionalized racism.”

She’s referring to the fact that more than 80 percent of the students enrolled at Harrison are black. This overrepresentation, she contends, indicates a flaw in the process by which students are identified for the program.

The school serves a limited number of students — just 32 at its current enrollment count. According to the school’s current principal, Nathan Hampton, roughly half of these students have emotional-behavioral disorders and the other half have some other cognitive disability or autism. The expressed goal of any level IV program is to equip students with the tools they need to succeed in a regular setting. But Fabre says she also struggled to make progress on creating a process by which students enrolled at Harrison could transition back to mainstream schools.

“You can’t fix Harrison,” she said. “It has to be dismantled. The building, itself, was built as a prison. You have to close that place down.”

While she left to take a job running a middle school in Louisiana, Fabre followed up by sending a letter to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights detailing her concerns about Harrison.

When Markham-Cousins came on board to lead Harrison during Fabre’s medical leave, she says she entered hopeful about the opportunity to help transform the culture at Harrison. Big on restorative practices, she worked closely with an expert consultant for the district on getting staff the training they needed.

But she left convinced that the promised reboot had failed. “I think my job was to keep a lid on it. I was naive in thinking there was going to be some effort in transforming, changing,” she said. “Unfortunately, Mohammed got hurt. But this is an opportunity for us to look very deeply at what’s going on.”

In her experience as interim principal at Harrison, she says the students were disengaged, the doors were locked, the staff was fearful, the community was enraged and the district was disconnected. And when she suggested holding a community forum — to explore the possibility of shutting the school down and finding alternatives for the students it currently serves — the district shot her proposal down. So she decided to not apply for the new permanent principal position  when it became available.

Students' personal items
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Students’ personal items, including cellphones, stay locked up during the day at Harrison.

Now she’s openly advocating that the district close the building — a recommendation she says she and others gave to Superintendent Ed Graff a while back. She thinks that the school’s students would be better served if the district took a more individualized approach to meeting their individual needs — whether that meant tutoring them in small groups or sending them back to their home schools with added supports.

“This is not a new issue. It’s been brought up before. What is the reason why we don’t persist in making the necessary changes?” she said. “There are many of us that have paraded this in front of the school board and the superintendent. How you respond to the students with the highest needs — and really the least access and power in your community — is really an indicator of what you’re about as a community.”

District sees a path forward for Harrison

In stark contrast to the coalition of voices demanding an alternative to Harrison, the leadership currently in place at the school say things are, in fact, moving in a positive direction. “I’ll fight tooth and nail to keep this place open, because I think our kids need something like this,” Hampton said during an interview at the school last Wednesday afternoon.

Having just completed his second school year as principal at Harrison, Hampton says students depend on the school for many things beyond an education. They rely on the school for things like a meal and relationships, as nearly a third are homeless and the vast majority are living in poverty.

“If we close Harrison down, where will these kids go? I can tell you what they’ll do: They’ll drop out,” he said.

Open-enrolling in another district, or in an intermediate district that’s specifically designed to serve kids with more severe emotional-behavioral disorders, is simply not a realistic option for many of these students, he said. In order to pursue these options, they’d need to be able to provide their own transportation to and from school every day.

Rochelle Cox, the district’s executive director of special education, says the reason Harrison exists is to ensure the district is complying with federal law, which states that each district must provide a federal setting level IV program for its students who qualify for these services. That means they need access to a learning environment that’s separate from their general education peers, where they spend at least 50 percent of their day.

Principal Nathan Hampton
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Principal Nathan Hampton: “I’ll fight tooth and nail to keep this place open, because I think our kids need something like this.”

“The majority of students are here 100 percent of their day. The 50 percent or above rule is used more when kids are transitioning back to a federal setting III, or typical high school setting,” she said, noting this allows students to try out a class or two at a regular high school, again, without staff needing to continuously change their special education status paperwork.

According to Anthony Gregory, another member of the school’s administration team, this year they’ve transitioned three students out of Harrison and back into mainstream high schools. Next year, they’re hoping to help another two or three do the same. But they’re not looking to push out students who communicate that they’re more comfortable staying at Harrison, he said.

In Gregory’s three years at Harrison, he says this is a more recent development that they’d like to continue to build upon. A key component of making that happen, says Hampton, are the transition teams he and his leadership team have put into place. Once students transition out of Harrison, he says they still receive regular check-ins from Harrison staff to make sure they have the proper supports in place to succeed in a regular setting. Hampton says he also made a point, from the get-go, to meet with every high school principal in the district to build trust with those receiving his students once they transitioned out.

“Even though we may not get kids from South, or Southwest or Roosevelt, I still spent time there with my colleagues,” he said. “There may be progaming that’s best for a kid at their school.”

Staff bolstered

With support from the district, the school has also bolstered its student support staff team. Students currently have access to three school administrators, along with a school nurse, two social workers, a psychologist, three deans of discipline and a part-time drug and alcohol counselor.

In terms of safety and security protocol, students wait to be let in through the locked front door, then empty out their personal items — including their cellphones — into a bag that goes into storage each day. They walk through a metal detector and then get escorted into the main level, where they’re greeted by staff who have congregated in the hallway, said Gregory during a recent tour of the building. After grabbing breakfast, they move to their classrooms on the second level, which is divided into two sections: the blue side, primarily for students with emotional behavioral disorders; and the green side for kids with more severe special-education-services needs.

On the tour, he pointed out a number of recent changes in the building, including a recording studio meant to enhance student engagement, a job training space, and a breakout room, where kids can ask to go decompress before they have an emotional outburst.

Gregory believes criticisms of Harrison are misaligned with what he sees taking place within the building’s walls.

“We’ve seen a change in the last two years,  just by being more structured as far as our team goes, as far as having our paperwork in order, making sure that we’re transitioning kids out the right way,” he said. “I think that we have started to actually look at their [Individual Education Plans] and figure out their actual needs and how we can service them. … We have a long ways to go, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

As for the return of the walkies and locked doors with keys, Gregory says they’re not employed as an “off-limits type of thing.” Rather, they’re used as another form of support for students and staff, he says.

Cox says the term “fresh start” and the anticipation that accompanies a term like that doesn’t really reflect the time that’s needed to make changes. “Each leader had best intentions for kids. And I think we possibly have had to go through all those pieces to get to where we are today,” she said. “It’s hard when people are still back two years ago, but haven’t been involved or seen the progress we’ve made.”

This year, the school graduated one student and had five more seniors agree to continue their public education at Transitions Plus, a district-run program to help special education students transition to adult life.

Chanceller Williams, 17, just completed his junior year at Harrison. He came from Washburn High School a year and a half ago, he says. Initially, the prospect of attending Harrison seemed daunting. But he says after about a month he began to feel more comfortable at Harrison.

“I just know that if I have something on my mind, I can go to staff,” he said. “If you’re hungry, they’re willing to buy you food — make you feel like you got somebody in your corner.”