Culture clash at South
On Valentine’s Day fights broke out in the South High School lunchroom that eventually involved as many as 200 to 300 students.
Police say tensions started during first-hour lunch at about 11:45 a.m. when one student threw a milk carton at another, sparking a small fight. By the third lunch hour, around 12:45 p.m., unsubstantiated rumors about that initial fight spread, erupting into a fight between African-American and Somali students. Staff members and school resource officers tried to intervene. One staff member was taken to the hospital after being hit in the head by a thrown bottle.
The school district's official statement reported, “Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) Public Information Officer Bill Palmer said two school resource officers on site were unable to handle the escalating situation and called MPD for backup.
Upon arrival, police attempted to disperse the crowd but were unsuccessful.
Police then formed a skirmish line, a method used during crowd control situations whereby officers link arms to form a barrier. When students failed to respond to police requests to leave, officers used a chemical agent. Mace was sprayed into the air above the crowd, not at any individual. Several students complained of the effects of mace."
Former Library Board Member Laura Waterman Wittstock has granddaughters at South. According to Wittstock, “[My granddaughters say]Somalis enjoy their language, which is appreciated, but they sometimes gather in groups and block the hallway passage for others. One granddaughter was late for class because she did not want to press through the knot of Somali students in the hallway. She said they speak in loud voices that intimidate her so she either avoids their groups or gets stuck when they block the hallway. At lunchtime Somali boys sometimes throw food at each other and it will miss and hit others. There are no apologies. She and her friends move away and stay away from these groups.
“She [My granddaughter] says in general she and her friends have Somali friends that do not engage in either blocking hallways or throwing food. She thinks it is not as simple as saying one group does not get along with the rest of the student body or a part of the student body. There are a lot of complexities when a separate language, culture and religion are involved. She says the main thing is teaching peace and practicing peace. That is what is needed.”
Somali School Board Member Hussein Samatar has called for more efforts to keep students safe in school, improvements in the cultural competence of South staff members and more support for students enrolled in rigorous classes.
Two days before the incident the student newspaper had written about Somali students’ concerns that their cultural differences were not understood and about conflicts between them and African Americans and American Indians.
Hopefully, the South High administration and teachers will use this experience as a “teachable moment” and begin to educate students about Somali, African American and American Indian history and culture.