Students and community members in Minnetonka are calling for change — again — after another racist incident in the school district.
Things came to a head last week after a white student, who is a member of the Minnetonka girls varsity basketball team, reportedly called three Black students a racial slur and suggested they kill themselves, according to the Minnetonka Coalition for Equitable Education (MCEE) – a grassroots organization promoting equitable education in the Minnetonka School District.
The incident led to two varsity girls basketball games being canceled, head coach Leah Dasovich stepping down for the remainder of the season, and students of color speaking out, continuing to demand something be done so all students feel safe at Minnetonka.
Related [Feb. 15]: Coach steps away, basketball game off amid racism claims at Minnetonka
"We are actively working through this situation with the students and their families," Minnetonka Schools spokesperson JacQui Getty told Bring Me The News on Monday, noting investigations and student disciplinary actions are considered private student data so the district cannot say much more about what happened.
Initially, the school district said little about the incident, stating that it was working with the students and that derogatory terms wouldn’t be accepted. But as days progressed and news spread about the incident, the district’s messaging became sterner, eventually calling the incident racist and said the use of the N-word would not be tolerated.
“It’s very telling that the school's response has gotten better only after the public is starting to be informed,” said a ninth-grader at Minnetonka, who identifies as Asian American and asked for their name to not be included. The student is a member of the MCEE but said they were only speaking on their personal experience and belief, not for MCEE as a whole.
“The original response to the situation was mostly the admin attempting to reduce damage by silencing student voices. Now they have started making progress and taking the approach of addressing the issue a little bit more head-on,” the student told Bring Me The News this week.
The student respects the district’s change in tone but believes the change was fueled by public perception and in defense of their image, not for the well-being of students, especially students of color, noting the district has “asked and forced students to stay quiet about the situation,” comparing it to rubbing salt in the wound.
While the district hasn’t explicitly said what occurred last week, social media posts from those involved detail what allegedly happened.
The white student was reportedly suspended for a day for telling a student to kill herself but was back at school on Friday. And when two of the three Black students went to the assistant principal about the district's response to the incident, the administrator said, "You can't even prove that. It's something that's really hard to track," according to audio and a transcript of the meeting shared on social media.
The students questioned why they should have to prove or have evidence of someone calling them a racial slur in order for there to be consequences. The administrator said there's "a lot more to the situation. We do the best we can."
One of the students responded, "Maybe that's the reason why people always say it online rather than just doing it in person."
The students were asked to sign no-contact orders, and the victims told the MCEE it was their impression they were going to be punished if they spoke out publicly but they did so anyway by posting about it on social media, the MCEE told Bring Me The News. The MCEE believes the students "felt that they had been threatened with suspension if they were to communicate about the situation publicly," said Sally Browne, a Minnetonka parent and an adult ally with the MCEE.
Getty said Tuesday she could not confirm these reports because she might inadvertently reveal information that is required by law to remain private.
"The signing of the no-contact agreement sparked some concerns because minors were being asked to sign something without parental consent that they didn’t understand," the MCEE told BMTN.
And on Tuesday, Minnetonka High School Principal Jeff Erickson told students via the morning announcements and email that the district would no longer be using "no-contact orders," something it has done in the past when there is a conflict, keeping the students involved apart to provide space to help defuse the tension between them.
"It is clear that has not always been the result of that process – and that we have unintentionally led some students to feel silenced. Those procedures will have no place in our process, going forward," Erickson said.
Getty said she could not comment on whether no-contact orders were used in this incident.
Erickson also stressed that racial slurs would not be welcome in the district, stating "The N-word has no place in our school, our community, and beyond. Period."
"Racism has no place in our community. Hate speech has no place here. I ask that you do your part in making our school welcoming and inclusive to all of our students regardless of their race, color or background," Erickson added.
Erickson's message came days after the incident as students and community members called on Minnetonka to do more. The MCEE said leadership at Minnetonka Schools needed to "denounce all forms of racism and bigotry and to take meaningful actions to make our schools safe for all students. Change starts at the top!"
Previous communication from the district did not take such a hard stance against the use of racial slurs. In an email to the MHS community on Feb. 11, Erickson said there was a "dispute" between some students "circulating on social media and in our school involving accusations of hurtful and derogatory words."
"We are actively working through the situation with the students and their families," Erickson said, without sharing specifics of the situation. "... We do not tolerate hateful and harmful actions and exchanges at MHS, and nor will we allow bullying or harassment."
Then on Feb. 14, Superintendent Dennis Peterson commented on the situation in an email to district families, saying the high school has been "struggling with a challenging situation involving a dispute between some students over the use of hateful language and actions."
"This situation has led to others sharing their experiences about how they have heard racial slurs and other derogatory terms used against students in our schools and that sometimes those comments go unaddressed, with no consequences," Peterson said. "It has been hard to hear that has been the experience of some of our students and families, but it is important they have shared this with us."
Peterson went on to say that "It is clear ... that we have more work to do" to make students and staff feel safe within the district.
Related: [June 10, 2020]: Petition calls for diversity, changes at Minnetonka Public Schools
Calls for the district to do more
This incident has been a flashpoint, with students and the MCEE saying this is the latest incident in which Minnetonka Schools has responded inadequately.
"I hope after this situation settles down, people will not forget what has happened in the past week," the Minnetonka ninth-grader told BMTN. "I hope that this situation can drive change in the administration's practices when dealing with hate within the school.
"This situation has highlighted the importance of transparency within the administration and it's important to recognize that this situation would not have enraged as many people if the administration had handled the frankly sad circumstance that the three students found themselves in more maturely before it got released to the public," the student added.
"If they handled it well, the victims shouldn’t feel silenced and in reality, it wouldn’t hurt their reputation. The thing that they have been aggressively trying to protect since day one."
The MCEE believes implementing its "imperatives for equitable education" would provide a blueprint for the district to move toward a more anti-racist, inclusive and equitable education for all students.
"Given current events, we are particularly conscious of our district's need to integrate restorative practices. But the most urgent of these imperatives is for the district to hire an equity-minded superintendent to replace retiring superintendent Dr. Dennis Peterson," MCEE told Bring Me The News on Wednesday. "Systemic change in Minnetonka Schools will follow a culture change that starts at the top."
The MCEE says it remains hopeful to work alongside district leaders to bring change.