School is a place for learning, but in the Anoka-Hennepin School District 11—as in school districts nationwide—school has also been a place reckoning with widespread discrimination.
Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota’s largest school district, enrolls over 38,000 students at 34 schools in 13 communities, including Anoka, Champlin, and Coon Rapids, as well as parts of Blaine, Brooklyn Center, and Brooklyn Park. About 96% of teachers in the Anoka-Hennepin School District are white, and less than 1% are Black or African American, according to the Minnesota Department of Education’s count in 2019. In comparison, 63.6% of students in the district are white, and about 12.7% are Black or African American. (In total, 36.1% of students are non-white in Anoka-Hennepin.)
Over the years, several students have reported discrimination within the district, and many community members have had enough. On Saturday, June 20, dozens of students, alumni, and activists met at Coon Rapids High School to protest ongoing discrimination in the district. Local actor, musician, and racial justice advocate Toussaint Morrison was among speakers decrying racial inequality and demanding staff and faculty changes.
Specifically, they protested incidents during the past decade involving racism and anti-LGBTQ discrimination at both the administrative and the student-body level. High-profile cases include a “suicide epidemic” among LGBTQ+ students and a Coon Rapids High School student who was asked to publicly apologize for stating, “Black lives matter,” during school announcements. (Just recently, former Anoka Middle School for the Arts teacher Jefferson Fietek was accused of sexually abusing students.)
“The school and district have said there is no place for racism in the schools, yet they have proven that their institution perpetuates it and protects the students and staff who do the same,” says protest organizer Jess Burggraf, Coon Rapids High School class of 2011. “It is time for serious change.”
As a class of 2016 alumnus of Coon Rapids High School, I saw reactions from former classmates on my own social media feeds. In my time at the school, I grew close to many of my peers as well as the teachers, and it was distressing finding out how many were hurt by the school, and the district at large.
After another alum reached out to me, I spoke to peers, former faculty, and the district superintendent’s office to gain more perspective on the cases of discrimination in Minnesota’s largest school district.
Between 2009 and 2011, nine students from the Anoka-Hennepin district committed suicide. Of the nine, four were from the LGBTQ community, or were perceived as such by their classmates. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, LGBTQ students are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight, cisgender peers. During this time period, Anoka-Hennepin district principals and faculty allegedly ignored students’ reports of bullying, according to a 2011 lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
The complaint states that students reported being stabbed with pencils, being called derogatory names, and even choked. It goes on to say that the administration told students to “lay low,” with one student advised to leave the school because the administration could not do anything to protect them.
SPLC writes, “The epidemic of anti-gay and gender-based harassment within District schools is rooted in and encouraged by official District-wide policies singling out and denigrating LGBT people.” Policies mentioned include censoring or remaining “neutral” in curriculum centered on sexual orientation and similar topics.
These “neutral” policies and the administration reportedly ignoring LGBTQ+ students led to what was named a “suicide epidemic” by local and national news sites, such as in Mother Jones‘s article “The Teen Suicide Epidemic in Michelle Bachmann’s District.” Rolling Stone released a revealing feature in 2012 about the alleged failings of the Anoka-Hennepin anti-bullying policy.
Along with the lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated the district after receiving complaints in 2010 about ongoing bullying. The outcome was new faculty training to address issues of sex-based harassment, among other updated policies. However, the five-year plan expired in 2017, and complaints continued.
In 2016, a transgender Coon Rapids High School student was barred from using the men’s locker room and instructed to use an enhanced-privacy bathroom during the swim season. In 2019, Gender Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a lawsuit on the student’s behalf.
According to attorneys representing the student, the district’s discrimination caused extreme mental distress to the student—so much so that he was hospitalized and never returned to the school. The discrimination case is ongoing, and a hearing was held on July 8 to determine whether the Minnesota Court of Appeals will allow the case to proceed. (At time of press, the opinion was not available.)
Another case of discrimination at Coon Rapids High School has recently reemerged. Shortly after George Floyd’s killing and the uprising that followed, a tweet by Twitter user Jawn Wick brought up this 2015 incident: “Don’t forget that Coon Rapids made a student apologize for wearing a #BLM shirt. I want an apology from them.” In reply, Coon Rapids student Samiira Husein identified herself. Her tweet went viral, with upwards of 53,000 likes.
In 2015, Husein had said, “Black lives matter,” on the school announcements while wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt. The next day, she was called into the office, where she was confronted by Principal Annette Ziegler and two administrators. Husein said she felt intimidated and cornered. In a statement on Twitter, Husein says she was given an ultimatum: “Apologize to the student body for my actions or face ‘harsh consequences’ like suspension. They claimed BLM was a political statement that was offensive and necessitated an apology when BLM is, in fact, a human rights movement.”
Later in this statement, Husein shared other racist incidents, including students wearing blackface and using racial slurs, teachers calling students racial slurs, and a student who sent a mass email to the school containing a racist and anti-Semitic questionnaire.
Coon Rapids High School posted a response acknowledging the incident, but offering no apology. It says, “the issue was resolved collaboratively with the student and parents involved” and that the district “took great care to protect student rights while also following district policy regarding this situation.”
“School administration feel terrible that the student felt this was an unsatisfactory solution at the time and continues to be dissatisfied with the situation,” Anoka-Hennepin School District Superintendent David Law wrote in a letter detailing the incident, noting that the administration reached out to Husein and her family. “Our schools continue to support students’ rights to free speech and specifically the message that Black Lives Matter.”
At the end of the letter, Law outlines actions the district has taken in the last five years to “improve the student experience, specifically related to race, as part of a district-wide initiative,” though some students and faculty say this is still insufficient.
Calling for Diverse Faculty and Administration
“David Law doesn’t hear the voices in the district,” says Derek Francis, a 2004 Champlin Park High School graduate. “He doesn’t have a desire to call out racism.”
Francis, a former student and counselor, says there are deeper systemic issues contributing to discrimination at Anoka-Hennepin. He says his 3.8 GPA did not earn him a seat in any sort of honors class and that many students of color are often overlooked when it comes to honors classes, both in Anoka-Hennepin and in schools nationwide. “The administration does not want to do work, to look at data and offer those classes to people of color,” he says.
Francis worked as a counselor at Champlin Park from 2016 to 2019, and says he was the district’s only person of color in that role at the time he was hired.
“It hurts my heart knowing there is racism in school counseling,” he says. He says he witnessed racism against students, and also experienced it firsthand—having to apologize for confronting a staff member for unspecified actions. Francis eventually left midway through his final school year due to the lack of support he felt from the administration.
He also says that the district “does a horrible job hiring diverse candidates.” The data from the Minnesota Department of Education in 2019 shows that 96% of the educators in the Anoka-Hennepin school district are white, compared to 63.6% of the students. Francis says the district “is like a mini U.S.A. There are so many students with different backgrounds.”
Coon Rapids High School asked him to give recommendations to increase staff diversity, Francis says. But his top pick for a school counselor was not selected, and he recalls petty excuses, such as missed deadlines. When Anoka-Hennepin received a grant in 2018 to start a “Grow Your Own” program designed to, according to the Minnesota Department of Education, “increase and diversify the teacher workforce in Minnesota,” all four candidates were white.
“The grants can only be awarded to those who apply,” says Jim Skelly, director of communication and public relations for Anoka-Hennepin. “There were no applicants of color to award grants [in 2018].” He notes that the district reached out individually to recruit employees of color to apply. In 2019, Skelly says five of the eight Grow Your Own candidates were people of color, and in 2020 there are 15 candidates who are people of color.
According to Skelly, additional initiatives supported by Anoka-Hennepin include Reimagine Minnesota, a 2016 action plan developed by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts following a 2015 educational equity and segregation lawsuit filed against the State of Minnesota. A group of about 40 superintendents, including Anoka-Hennepin’s David Law, launched Reimagine Minnesota to “address integration, access, opportunity, and educational achievement” through community conversations meant to develop strategies that diversify recruitment and curriculum.
Anoka-Hennepin has also enacted an Equity Achievement Plan, a multi-year effort announced in 2019 to amplify student voices, improve the professional development of staff, and eliminate performance gaps. Skelly describes Superintendent David Law, who was named the 2020 Minnesota Superintendent of the Year, as “an equity leader in our district and a founder and a driving force in Minnesota to remove the academic achievement gap.” (Law could not be reached for comment at press time.)
While supporters say Anoka-Hennepin’s initiatives are in good faith, Francis says these initiatives merely “check the box.” Francis challenges the district: “How are you including people of color in your staff? In academics, are you challenging [students of color]? How are you supporting staff and students when incidents happen?”
He further challenges the efforts by the districts: “For staff training, how often do they do them? Are all staff attending? The answer is no. For recruiting and retaining staff of color, how many staff of color per building? How many counselors, social workers, etc., of color? How many male teachers of color? What surveys have been done to see what the experience has been for educators of color?”
The Future of Protests
As other protests take place across the state and country, the ongoing discrimination in the district has boiled under the surface long enough that people like Husein are speaking out.
At the June 20 protest, student Jalyiah Taylor addressed the white people present. “Enough people care about what is outside of their circle but inside of their communities, and that is the first step to change,” she said. “The next steps are to keep applying pressure, to spread our message, and to get more parents involved on wanting better for their students.”
Those who are protesting are hoping for a number of changes at the school and district level. First on the list is new and diverse leadership. (Annette Ziegler has been principal of Coon Rapids High School for seven years, and David Law has been Anoka-Hennepin superintendent for six years.)
Students also want anti-racist policies that hold students and faculty accountable for their words and actions. Husein outlined these actions on Twitter, both at the district level and the building level. In the classroom, the district needs to invest more in educators of color, they say, and to develop a curriculum that includes the history of race in America, taught by those educators. Furthermore, she adds, “A representative committee of community members should elect new leadership into the District and [Coon Rapids High School].”
Protesters plan to show up to the next district meeting on August 24, if it is in person, and Husein has created a petition to garner support for their demands.
Francis wants to see change, and he and others are willing to do something about it. “I’m happy to support [Anoka-Hennepin] because it’s important to me,” he says.