Last year, Success Academy, a small charter school that shares a site with the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, was running into an unusual problem through no fault of its own.
Success had no playground, so instead students were taken to the nearby public playground – Smith Park -- during recess for about an hour every afternoon. Kids and the staff were reminded that since this park belonged to everybody, they had to remember to be polite and share.
That part was fine, Director Magdy Rabeaa says. The problems started when strangers posted up across the street to take photos or videos of the kids while they were playing.
The surveillance is all wrapped up with some community members' weird, troubled relationship with Dar Al Farooq, and by extension, with the school. The mosque has been the frequent subject of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories about alleged plots to impose Islamic law in the United States.
In fact, the only real plot uncovered so far was against the mosque. In 2017, a group of white supremacists from Illinois tried to blow it up. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. But the parents and kids – many of whom came to the United States after fleeing from countries torn apart by war and violence – haven’t forgotten. The presence of strangers with cameras near their playground scared them.
“We can’t do anything to them, because it’s a public place,” Rabeaa says. They did approach the Bloomington City Council, which passed an ordinance banning the filming of children at public parks without consent.
One of the vigilante videographers, Sally Ness, is currently challenging that law in court, saying the rule -- designed to prevent the harassment and intimidation of children -- violates her right to free speech.
Success Academy’s students are now distance learning, like most other students in Minnesota. When they come back, they want to feel safe during recess. So, staff and families have been raising money to build the school its own, fenced-in playground.
Rabeaa says they’re almost there. Between the school’s GoFundMe page (nearly $4,400), a generous discount from the playground equipment company ($10,000) and a combination of various grants, awards, and donations ($40,000) they’re only $10,000 away from their goal. If they can manage to make that in the next few weeks, they can get construction started this summer and have it ready for next fall.
“The students and families are very excited,” Rabeaa says. And he’s excited for them. No student should be scared to come to school, he says, or fearful that they might be watched. They should be focused on doing what they came to do: learning.
“They deserve a better and safer educational environment,” he says.