Students from dozens of Minnesota schools walked out of their classrooms Monday afternoon, in a coordinated protest against racial injustice and the killing of Daunte Wright, the 20-year-old man shot by a police officer in a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center earlier this month.
The walkout, organized by a group called Minnesota Teen Activists and coordinated primarily on Instagram, began at 1 p.m. and was to conclude with a moment of silence at 1:47 p.m., the time of Wright’s death.
In schools in Fridley, Eden Prairie, Robbinsdale, Elk River and Moorhead, and cities across the metro and beyond, students seized on the shared moment to express hurt and frustration over Wright’s death and broader issues of racism and inequality. But for many, it was also an opportunity to highlight problems with racism and discrimination within schools themselves — a topic that’s been front and center in many districts this year amid a wave of student activism.
In a statement, student activists with the organizing group — who attend schools in the Osseo, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Fridley and Anoka-Hennepin districts, said they are encouraged by the number and geographic span of students who wanted to speak out against racism with Monday’s walkout.
“We are hoping that not only school districts receive our statement of action but as well as the state of Minnesota,” the statement read. “We are sick and tired of injustice.”
In Minneapolis, a crowd of about 250 students, mostly high schoolers, gathered downtown near U.S. Bank Stadium. As snow fell, they chanted: “You can’t stop the revolution,” and “We are the students, the mighty, mighty students.”
At Minnetonka High School, student organizers of Monday’s walkout said their aim was to publicly hold school district leaders accountable for earlier promises to tackle students’ concerns about racism, diversity and equity. “No justice, no excellence,” read a graphic students shared online to promote the event.
Since last summer, a group called the Minnetonka Coalition for Equitable Education has been holding demonstrations and pushing for changes ranging from anti-racism training for school staff to updating curriculum with wider community input. The district has followed through some of the group’s requests, like adding hate symbols to the list of items banned in school dress codes, expanding its reach in hiring to target more diverse job candidates and creating an online reporting system for incidents of harassment and discrimination.
District spokeswoman JacQueline Getty said the district has made “significant strides” toward its goal of boosting diversity, equity and inclusion, in part because of students’ input.
“Outreach from our students, in particular, certainly influenced the development of this goal and the speed by which we have been working on the elements of it,” she said.
But Ahlaam Abdulwali, a Minnetonka senior, said many of the district’s responses have been inadequate. She said students of color have been encouraged by the support of individual teachers and community members, but felt dismissed by school district leaders.
As an example, she said students have told the district that they want to hear clear, specific messages of support from school leaders after traumatic events like the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright at the hands of police, or the recent mass shooting in Atlanta in which many victims were women of Asian descent. She said students see the district’s unwillingness to acknowledge the specific pain or concerns of Black students, or students in other groups, as evidence that leaders haven’t or don’t want to make real changes.
“I’ve seen a really big difference in the attitudes and sentiments that people had last year,” Abdulwali said. “It’s just the school administration that isn’t making solid policies and actionable items that will create a change that’s permanent.”
Students in two north metro districts — Centennial and White Bear Lake — have voiced similar frustrations with their own school leaders in recent weeks. In both districts, students recently held walkouts after students reported receiving racist messages via text and social media. Both incidents prompted an outpouring of concern from students who said their personal experiences with racism at and around school were far more extensive than the messages, and calls for the districts to do more to combat harassment, re-evaluate curriculum and diversify their staffs.
Days after the walkout in White Bear Lake, district officials released a statement calling the racist messages a hoax — a move that prompted additional outcry from students who said the district was trying to diminish their real-world experiences with racism at school. The district later clarified that the messages had been sent by a “juvenile female” whose goal was to raise awareness of issues of racism and injustice at White Bear Lake schools.
Gretel Tassah, a senior at White Bear Lake High School, said many students of color were already unconvinced that district leaders were serious about fixing problems students have spoken up about this year — and their response to the recent situation didn’t help.
“From my perspective it’s honestly like they don’t know what to do,” she said. “This is the first time that the extent of the problem has been thrown in their face.”
Jenna Mitchler, assistant superintendent for Bloomington Public Schools, where students have also organized this year to urge for change and call out problems with racism and diversity, said it’s important for school leaders to consider the many ways in which educators may have once thought they were listening to students — but perhaps were not.
She said Bloomington and other districts are now developing systems that give students a voice in long-term planning and other school decisions, rather than just having the adults in the room determine what students want and need. In the short-term, specific changes in Bloomington include new “cultural proficiency” training for teachers and changes to how the district categorizes student discipline.
Mitchler said it’s clear school districts need to consider students’ perspectives in a more meaningful way than they may have in years past.
“We have to listen,” she said. “And if we’re not creating spaces for it, students are going to create their own spaces.”
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