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South High lunchroom brawl timely talking point for Monday’s Safe Schools Youth Summit

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South high students told news media they have complained about the long-simmering tensions to no avail.

On Monday, when a phalanx of budding student lobbyists descends on the Capitol for the Safe Schools Youth Summit, the lunchroom brawl that took place at Minneapolis’ South High can serve as talking point No. 1.

A food fight that began in the school’s cafeteria Thursday morning erupted into a free-for-all involving 200 to 300 students, according to the police officers who were called to quell the incident. Students said the roots of the altercation are simmering racial tensions involving the school’s Somali population, 8 percent of the student body.

Students told news media they have complained about the long-simmering tensions to no avail. For their part, Minneapolis Public Schools brass were quick to assert that they take allegations of racism very seriously.

Among the most integrated high schools, South has a long history of students embracing diversity. It has a strong student anti-racism group whose efforts have been copied by Twin Cities suburbs. And it has a reputation as safe.

Yet like many other metro area high schools it has lost fearful East African students to charters and smaller programs. Indeed, one in three Somali students here now attend charter schools.

Monday’s confab of student lobbyists needs to help their elected representatives wrap their minds around this seeming contradiction.

Minnesota’s anti-bullying statute was judged the weakest in the nation in a U.S. Department of Education survey conducted two years ago. At precisely 37 words, it would do nothing to assist in the prevention of future fights like the one at South.

Past legislatures have resisted enacting a meaningful law despite ongoing controversies and a wave of youth suicides in the state’s largest district. A state task force appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton last year released a detailed set of recommendations and a plea for urgency. Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Mpls.) is expected to introduce a bill containing the task force’s recommendations.

Among the thorny issues school leaders confront when trying to ensure school safety is the complexity of tapping into students’ social ecosystem, both in school and online. Minnesota does not require schools to track or report bullying or harassment. If it did, administrators could use the data to get a handle on where and how inflammatory exchanges are taking place.

The implementation of a sophisticated school-climate monitoring system is one of the items in a landmark settlement reached last year by the federal departments of Justice and Education and the Anoka-Hennepin School District, which was sued by students who said it turned a blind eye to harassment.

Requiring teachers and others who work in schools to report student complaints and observations will allow administrators to identify potential “hot spots” such as particular bus routes, hallways or social circles.

MPS several years ago passed a series of comprehensive school climate policies, including a very strong stance against LGBT harassment. And after a recent racially tinged episode at Washburn High School, the district took pains to invite in the community to say what it could do better.

“Any time we can mitigate and plan and talk about issues and gauge climate and attitude, any time we can do that it’s a positive for us,” said MPS Communications Director Stan Alleyne. “We do talk about climate. We think that when you do that, when you plan and mitigate situations it ends up reducing the possibility of bad things happening.”

Monday’s student summit is being coordinated by the Minnesota Safe Schools for All Coalition, a group of more than 80 organizations working to secure passage of the “Safe Schools” bill. The 10 a.m. event is free and open to the public, but registration is requested. In addition to learning to speak to their lawmakers, participants will have the opportunity to watch Dibble introduce the measure.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Gaylyn Bicking on 02/16/2013 - 02:52 pm.

    Diversity at South High

    Both my children, who are now adults, graduated from South High. Although South is known for its diversity, it has never been a paradise of multi-culturalism. On any given day, look at the lunchroom where self-segregation is a given. The problems at South only reflect the problems of the nation as a whole. There are no easy solutions.

    By the way some of the charter schools Somali students attend are basically religious (read Muslim) schools that are very segregated. Although there is supposed to be separation of church and state, it is my opinion that some of the charter schools are really religious schools. They shouldn’t be supported by tax money, but that’s an entirely different discussion.

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