Lakeville South student reprimanded for racist graffiti

Outrage expressed on social media, School Board meeting

A Lakeville South High School special needs student of color is being disciplined for scrawling racist, anti-Semitic graffiti on a student bathroom stall and door.

One of two statements regarding the incident released by the Lakeville Area School District on Monday, Feb. 27 said that day a staff member reported someone had written “offensive words and images on bathroom stalls” that were also described in an earlier statement as “racist, anti-Semitic graffiti.”

School maintenance staff began work to repair the damage, and the district said Lakeville South “will use the situation as a teachable moment where possible.”

“We take these matters seriously and strive to create a safe, welcoming environment for all students in our schools,” the statement said.

The graffiti included black marker drawings of swastikas, and images and words disparaging to African-Americans.

District 194 Superintendent Lisa Snyder read a statement about the incident at the Feb. 28 School Board meeting, calling it “extremely unfortunate.”

She said it “certainly does not reflect the values of our community or Lakeville South High School.”

Snyder said the district views this as a “very teachable moment” for students, staff and the community.

She said Lakeville South created a plan to facilitate conversations regarding diversity with students and staff, many led and co-facilitated by student leaders.

Cultural liaisons, deans and student support staff were made available at the school March 1 to talk with students who wished to discuss the issues in small groups.

“Lakeville South High School is committed to ensure that all students feel welcome and safe in school,” Snyder said.

She said the Minnesota Department of Education and other state officials were working with the district regarding the “very unfortunate incident and making sure we are responding in a very responsible manner for our community and for our students.”

Several citizens spoke out about the incident and cited concerns about racism in Lakeville public schools at the Feb. 28 School Board meeting.

African-American Lakeville South students Audrey Aouga and Mariam Hosein and their AVID coach Amy Solinger shared concerns of how minorities are treated in the schools.

Solinger said Century Middle School students were disciplined for chanting “Build that wall,” referring to the border security wall between the United States and Mexico, in school the day after the presidential election.

“I don’t think that was enough,” Solinger said. “It needs to be clear to all families and students that this behavior will not be tolerated.”

She quoted an email from one of her students that stated Lakeville South students have been called racial slurs at school and discriminated against by being told to go back home and students yelling “build a wall” at them.

“You can try and wash away the words that were written in these bathrooms today, but you cannot erase the racism and discrimination that’s in this world,” Solinger said, quoting the student’s email.

Solinger said that while the student involved in the incident deserves understanding, she urged full recognition of racism and urged the district to listen to the minority students.

“They’re scared,” Solinger said. “They don’t feel welcome and it breaks my heart.”

Self-described human rights activist Mel Reeves, Minneapolis, urged district officials to call an assembly and announce that racial slurs, racism and derogatory statements based on a group of people will not be tolerated, then design a “severe punishment” that everyone knows about to ensure the behaviors stop.

“People respond to that,” Reeves said, “when they see that you’re serious.”

He urged discussion on tolerance and called the situation an opportunity the district can take on and address.

Luis Alvarez, a 2011 Lakeville South graduate, said he dealt with racism since moving to Lakeville when he was in eighth grade.

He said he and his family endured many racial slurs and if he tried to stand up for himself and other minorities, other students would reprimand him.

Alvarez said the district should not treat the incident as a hate crime even though the student being disciplined for committing the act is of color with diminished mental capabilities.

“Hate crimes should not be tolerated in any way, shape or form regardless of who you are,” Alvarez said.

He said his home was vandalized because of his ethnicity and the words people said to him lingers for years after they are uttered.

Alvarez said the district should require staff to attend the World Cafe event.

The event is March 8 6-8:30 p.m. at Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District’s main offices, 200 W. Burnsville Parkway in Burnsville, and is being held to gain input on equity and integration efforts.

It was organized after more than 40 superintendents formed an ad hoc committee last fall to address equity and integration in education through an initiative dubbed “Reimagine Minnesota.”

The districts are joining to design a new model of education to help all students succeed, noting Minnesota’s changing demographic composition.

Anyone is invited to attend and can register at http://bit.ly/WorldCafeMN.

District 194 School Board Chair Michelle Volk said she was glad people came forward and shared their stories.

“Some people brought up some really good points,” Volk said.

After public comment ended, District 194 Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Emily McDonald met with many of the speakers outside the meeting to connect with all who shared concerns.

A man standing nearby the group told them, “I’m so glad you’re in our schools,” and thanked them for speaking up.

Snyder, who took notes while speakers were addressing the board, said she planned to bring up the comments with Lakeville South Principal John Braun when she met with him on Wednesday.

She said a committee has been formed to address issues at Lakeville South.

She said she appreciated the feedback and that the input is taken into account as the district moves forward, including as the district updates its plans for equity and integration.

“This is not the first incident in our schools and we acknowledge that and expect to continue to respond appropriately to that,” Snyder said. “I think we want to expand the discussion. The March 8 Reimagine Minnesota event is an incredible opportunity to do that.”

Communications Director Amy Olson said they are listening carefully and expect to continue conversations that help bring everyone together.

“We’ll be continuing talks and looking at what our efforts are related overall to diversity and inclusion as we go forward,” Olson said.