In the summer of 2017, everything about Success Academy’s new Bloomington location was exciting.
The small charter school’s old location in a Minneapolis Lutheran church was cramped, with only a few classrooms on each floor, a tiny gym, and no greenspace. Now they had much more room and access to a playground. Director Magdy Rabeaa had just finished a few days of moving furniture and settling in when he got a call that changed everything. Their new building had been bombed.
Success Academy shares the site with the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center. They moved in the same summer three men from Illinois crossed state lines to “scare” the resident Muslims “out of the country” with an explosion. Nobody was hurt, but parents were panicking. Magdy says they lost a few staff and families that year.
They did their best to move on. Administrators held frequent meetings with police and neighbors. They weathered complaints to the Department of Education about “homemade” sambusas being served at school events (they were actually store-bought) and buses arriving minutes late on the first few days of the school year.
But parents really started to worry when strangers would stand in the street and take photos or video of the mosque or the students.
“We’d call the police, but it’s a public street,” Magdy says. “There’s not much we can do.”
So they scrimped to hire a security guard, even though it wasn’t in the budget for the 130-student school. Then, in September, things escalated. That’s when two people showed up at the school’s playground during recess and started taking photos while the kids played. One was a neighbor the staff recognized from previous incidents. The other was Larry Frost.
Frost lives in Bloomington and is an attorney for a contributor to Third Rail Talk: a Minnesota website dedicated to “developments” that “Big Media” won’t cover—including the so-called “creeping advancement of the Sharia agenda” and “Somali crime.”
Its photographers—and others—have been zooming in on Dar Al Farooq for a while, trying to connect the mosque to an alleged plot to impose Islamic law in the United States. Meanwhile, Frost has been accusing the mosque of being a burden on the neighborhood for years. Back in 2016, he circulated a petition trying to get the city to reel in its activities.
Sixth-grader Samiya Ali was playing with friends when she clocked the duo and started to get nervous. She’s seen people taking photos before, and she started to wonder what Frost would do with the pictures, and if he had a weapon in his pocket.
Frost couldn’t be reached for comment. He has admitted to being at the park that day, but says he was exercising his First Amendment right to photograph in a public space, according to MPR. He wasn’t photographing the “children,” he said—he was photographing the “park.”
He did say he was doing pro bono work for a neighborhood group called “Friends of Smith Park,” which claims the charter school is disturbing the neighborhood by using the park. He wouldn’t say what he was going to do with the footage.
A few minutes after Samiya reported what was happening, the staff brought the students in early. Kids kept asking the teachers what was going on and what the man with the camera was doing.
“[They] didn’t have no answer,” Samiya says.
Liz Collin, Samiya’s teacher, says that’s because nobody quite knew what to say.
“We try not to talk about it too much in class,” she says. She doesn’t want kids feeling vulnerable when they’re supposed to be learning. Besides, she doesn't know what the pictures were for.
Third-grade teacher Mariah Mincke says kids now play a little differently outside. They tell teachers right away when they see someone they don’t recognize, even though they’ve discussed that the park is open to the public—a space to be shared with others.
They’re not exactly “scared,” she says, but they are “wary.”
“And that’s not how it should be,” she says. “They’re not as excited to be outside as they used to be.”
Some teachers, parents, and students spoke at a recent Bloomington City Council meeting about strangers harassing schoolkids. But as a more permanent solution, Success Academy is raising funds to buy its own playground. There’s a GoFundMe page with a $95,000 goal.
Samiya and others speak optimistically about how much better their own playground will be. But Rabeaa grimaces a little when they talk about what they want: a fence, a security camera, two, maybe three security guards, locks.
“These are young little innocent kids,” he says after they’ve gone back to class. All this anxiety isn’t good for them. He wishes anyone who had a problem with the school would just talk to him rather than take it out on the kids.
“No school is perfect,” he says. “But at the same time, do not do things that come at the expense of students learning.”