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This is the first time Abdulkhani "Abdul" Abdi has felt heard by the administration at Minnetonka High School in his nearly four years as a student, but he has yet to feel comfortable at school.

That's one of the reasons the Minnetonka senior, who identifies as African American, is working with Cam Beyah, a junior, and other BIPOC students to hold a sit-in at the school Tuesday morning.

Abdi hopes the sit-in will bring about conversations with administrators so students of color in the future — including his younger siblings — will feel safe and comfortable at the high school, which is mostly white

This student-organized protest comes as Minnetonka Public Schools face backlash from another racist incident involving students. Things came to a head last week after a white student, who is a member of the girls varsity basketball team, allegedly called three Black classmates the N-word and told them to kill themselves. 

Read more: As another racism incident embroils Minnetonka schools, students repeat call for change

The incident led to the varsity girls basketball coach stepping away for the rest of the season and at least two basketball games being canceled. It also prompted a protest outside the high school on Feb. 16 that was organized by an activist not affiliated with Minnetonka Schools.

But Abdi and Beyah, who are the presidents of the student groups Men of Color and Women of Color, respectively, had already been planning to hold a sit-in before news of the racial slurs spread on social media. They came up with the idea after the district earlier this month wouldn't allow them to show a 90-second Black History Month video they had made during the morning announcements, as the groups had done in previous years. 

The first video the groups wanted to air focused on honoring the victims of police brutality and providing action steps for students to take to enact change. Previous years' videos had primarily focused on celebrating influential Black Americans, Abdi said.

Abdi said he and Beyah were "confused" and "shocked" when administrators denied the video in early February, recalling school leaders saying at the time it wasn't the correct venue and wouldn't have the right impact. 

So, the two classmates began discussing creating their own venue to air the video, and landed on holding a sit-in. But then, news spread about the recent racist incident, which was "more fuel to the fire," Abdi told Bring Me The News on Saturday. 

"Obviously that was horrible but what got me was admin's reaction and admin's response to the whole situation. It was not adequate. It was not good," Abdi said. 

An ongoing issue

Minnetonka has a "long history of brushing issues like this under the rug and doing whatever they can to minimize it" by going on the morning announcements or sending emails that vaguely discuss the incident, Abdi said. 

Following the most recent racist incident, administrators did not initially take a hard stance against racial slurs, with Minnetonka High School Principal Jeff Erickson calling what happened a "dispute" between some students "circulating on social media and in our school involving accusations of hurtful and derogatory words."

But days later, Erickson used more direct language, stating "The N-word has no place in our school, our community, and beyond. Period."

Abdi thinks this was the first time an administrator has directly stated the issue following an incident of racism. 

“It’s very telling that the school's response has gotten better only after the public is starting to be informed," a ninth-grader who identifies as Asian American but asked to not be named told Bring Me The News last week, adding that they believe the district's change in tone was fueled by public perception and was in defense of its image, not for the wellbeing of students, especially students of color.

Related [March 12, 2021]: Fallout from Minnetonka school's morning announcements highlights deeper tensions between district, parents

Related [March 2, 2021]: Community rallies to support Minnetonka teacher threatened for discussing Black trans woman during morning announcements

Incidents of hate — and how the district responds to such incidents — is an ongoing issue at Minnetonka High School, with Abdi stating if the three students who were called racial slurs hadn't gone to social media to share their story, "it would have been another cold case of what happens within the walls of Minnetonka."

"This happens a lot more frequently than we think" or that gets reported on, Abdi said. 

At a recent Men of Color and Women of Color joint meeting, there were about 70 students in attendance and each person had their own story — or more than one story — of racist incidents happening to them, he said. Abdi has also spoken to alumni who have stories of racism, and notes there is an Instagram account that shares Minnetonka students' experiences of racism.

“Emotional safety is extremely important, and it goes hand-in-hand with physical safety, and administration need to be aware of that. If a student is in the classroom and their emotional safety has been compromised, they’re not going to be able to learn,” Abdi said, noting the way the district investigates incidents of racism is flawed and it doesn't seem like a top priority for the district.

And he would know. Abdi has experienced this first hand. A classmate two years ago said racial slurs to him and he wasn't able to function in the class they had together. He asked to be switched out of the class, but administrators said it was too late into the semester, Abdi explained.

"If it hadn't been for COVID, I wouldn't have been able to be successful in that class," Abdi said. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Minnetonka and schools across the state moved to distance learning for the remainder of the school year.

Abdi had video proof via Instagram Live of the student calling him the N-word but the district said it couldn't do anything because the incident didn't happen at school. 

"They easily dismissed it because it happened on social media," he commented.

Abdi said the district seems to pick and choose how to respond to hateful incidents. In 2019, there was an incident involving an anti-Semitic dance proposal that happened on social media so the district said it could take action, he explained. And in the most recent incident, admins allegedly said they couldn't do more because there wasn't proof the students were called a racial slur.

"[The district] makes excuses ... and literally goes out of their way to protect perpetrators," Abdi said. 

Time and time again, Minnetonka puts an "undue burden" on students of color to prove they've been harassed or called a racial slur instead of believing and supporting them, Abdi said. 

Addressing the district's lack of consistency in how it investigates, responds to and penalizes students involved in racist incidents is among the demands and imperatives Abdi and Beyah are pushing for during the sit-in. In fact, Abdi said they've written a no-hate policy for the district to enact that would address this. 

Hopeful for change

Abdi’s experience with academics and sports has been pretty good, but as a Black man in Minnetonka “It obviously hasn’t been the best because … aside from right now, there has not been other times where I have genuinely felt supported by admin or have gone and been heard by admin — they hear me, but they don’t hear me.”

Related: [June 10, 2020]: Petition calls for diversity, changes at Minnetonka Public Schools

"That has definitely changed" since last week, Abdi said. "If this recent event didn't happen, I don't know if I would have been heard ... My second semester of my senior year is the first time I have felt like admin actually hear me."

“There are kids that graduated last year that never felt heard” despite having walk outs and countless meetings with administrators, he added. "It's genuinely heartbreaking and genuinely sad."

However, Abdi does not feel comfortable at school, and his comfort at Minnetonka has been compromised since the first day, he explained. During freshman orientation — before classes even started — a student called another student a racial slur, and the victim still doesn't feel safe despite going and telling administrators years ago.

But Abdi is hopeful students of all races will feel comfortable at Minnetonka in the future. Students of color are proposing imperatives they believe will create more inclusivity, equity and equality within the district to help make that a reality. 

The students are calling on the district to enact a no-hate policy so every incident of racism is investigated and responded to appropriately; offer racial affinity spaces like many of the districts in the area already have; and have programs and policies in place to support students of color, among other demands.

Abdi said he would also like to see Minnetonka move away from the norm of only taking action when there is pressure from students, community members and the media, and instead hold themselves accountable. 

They also want the community to show their support so they can be kids.

"Even though we are fighting these injustices and doing the best we can to help with racial inequities we are still students. We work very hard on the things we do but we also deserve the chance to be kids," Beyah told Bring Me The News. "This is why we need the community behind us and supporting us when it comes to causes like this.

"Racial inequities are a very difficult thing to deal with and have been an issue for countless years, but we need the community to support us in order to really make a change."

Uniting the student body

BIPOC students will use Tuesday's sit-in to unite the entire student body to push for change to make Minnetonka a safer place for all students, address inequities and lack of acknowledgment toward racial issues, and “to ensure future BIPOC students that come to the building have a better experience than we did,” Abdi said.

“Being able to come and unite as one student body behind one common goal definitely applies a lot of pressure to the school to follow through," Abdi said.

The sit-in, which will feature student speakers, will be held in the cafeteria at Minnetonka High School from 8-10 a.m. on Tuesday.

“Right now, the ball is in our court. It’s our turn to go and tell admin what we want, and I feel they’re going to listen,” Abdi said. He foresees the protest running smoothly and being "very successful." 

Unlike the walk-out that was held last week by a Twin Cities activist, a sit-in is more accessible for more students, while offering a productive and positive environment and more structured and strategic approach to share their imperatives and get the district to enact real change, Abdi said. 

"Other forms of peaceful protest, such as walkouts, have proven ineffective with the Minnetonka administration. Silence is power," Beyah said. "This will show that we will wait for as long as we need to wait for, push for as long as we need to push for, and fight for as long as we need to fight for to get that greater change from the district."

Initially, students at Minnetonka were working with the activist on a demonstration in response to the recent racist incident but they were uncomfortable with the approach the activist wanted to take and were worried about student safety, so the Minnetonka students canceled it. The activist did still lead a protest outside the high school on Feb. 16, but the majority of Minnetonka students did not attend.

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