On February 19, Somali students at St. Cloud Technical High School staged a walk-out in protest of a Snapchat photo that circulated showing a Somali kid in a wheelchair with the caption "ISIS."
That prompted representatives from the U.S. Department of Education to swoop into St. Cloud State University on Monday to listen to the problems of Somali students at Tech. What they got was two hours of testimony about being called niggers and taunted about their families' supposed welfare dependence.
They also got an earful from St. Cloud parents, who dismissed the bullying allegations as having nothing to do with race.
Shamso Iman, a Tech graduate, said that back in 2004, a friend suffered a broken hand after a football player shoved her down a flight of stairs. Another student was cornered and interrogated about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.
"One day we were at lunch, and this kid kept making racial comments, 'You should ride a camel back to Somalia,' and this and that," Iman recalled. "I got up and said something to him, but he just kept going on and on about how we took from the government everything that we have, our phones and everything."
For Iman, the recent mocking of the Somali student in a wheelchair means she has cause to worry for her siblings and cousins still in the St. Cloud school district.
Of the 1,500 students at Tech High, about 10 percent are Somali. Students Suda Salah and Nasteho Dini explained they walked out of school because administrators routinely turn a blind eye to bullies.
"We did it because we didn't feel welcome at Tech," Dini said. "I wear a scarf, I pray, I get called a terrorist. You guys don't know how that feels. I respect all white people, I respect all black people. But for you guys to say it's not racism, you're not the ones at Tech High School every day. You're not there when we get spit on or when they take our scarves off."
Yet white parents shot back that the Somalis were just as often the aggressors. In a room divided between white parents on one side and Somali students and their friends on the other, the argument quickly devolved into whose kids went home crying more.
Leslie Carlin, a mother of two at Tech, tearfully told the Somalis that they need to realize bullying is a two-way street.
"Obviously my kids are white, and obviously they're Christian. My kids come home too, crying because they get picked on by you, ok?" she said, gesturing at the Somali girls in the front row. "You call them white crackers. I hear from more people than not that you tend to make lines in hallways and not let our kids through. If they say excuse me, you don't move, and if they touch you, they're in detention."
Carlin also demanded answers from the feds about why St. Cloud schools allow Somali girls to wear scarves and Muslim students to have access to a prayer room.
"The biggest question a lot of us have that has never been answered is why the schools do not have church and state separated," she said.
The moderator stepped in to explain the constitutional right to freedom of religion -- the same reason why schools break for Christmas.
A couple parents called for greater cultural understanding between the white student majority and the Somali newcomers.
Mike Conway recalled an incident a few years ago where a sandal got tossed into a group of Somali kids, a major insult in their culture. The white kids didn't know, Conway said. His daughter was singled out as the perpetrator, and she didn't get to finish school because of the harassment she received in response.
"The district needs to have open and honest dialogue with everyone," Conway said. "We have to be able to say this hurts, that's not ok. In your religion you might find that offensive, and in my religion I find this offensive. We are a family here in St. Cloud."
The message didn't reach everyone at the forum. The two fronts continued to hash out their misgivings in heated one-on-one debate. When a Somali reporter from the St. Cloud Times snapped a photo of a woman in the audience, she demanded that he erase the picture, even though the event was held at a public university.
The Department of Education will continue to monitor race relations in St. Cloud as part of a 2011 settlement between the St. Cloud school district and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
At the time, Somalis were already complaining about a laundry list of hazing tactics, including the creation of a Facebook group called "I hate the Somalians at Tech High." After an investigation, the U.S. Office for Civil Rights confirmed racist bullying at both Tech and Apollo High School.
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