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District responds to hate speech in Duluth high schools

Students arrive for classes at Duluth East High School as a district maintenance crew cleans the windows above the main entrance. (file photo / News Tribune)

Duluth school district teachers will talk with students this week about diversity and tolerance following reports of election-related hate speech coming from several schools, including East and Denfeld high schools.

Last week racist and homophobic graffiti was discovered in a girls' bathroom stall at Denfeld, and some East students were targeted by another East student with racist speech on social media.

The Denfeld graffiti and the comments made on Facebook both made reference to President-elect Donald Trump. Superintendent Bill Gronseth said intolerance has been observed at elementary and middle schools, too, in the wake of last week's election results.

"We've seen an increase in some troubling behaviors across the district and we're just sharing with families, asking them to have conversations with their students about this; about racist language, images and behavior. It's not acceptable," Gronseth said.

Teachers will talk with kids during the advisory periods of the middle and high schools. Coincidentally, lecturer and author Mahmoud El-Kati is scheduled to speak to kids at both high schools about microaggressions and the effects of racism; something planned before recent events.

"Like many schools across the country, we are looking at the bigger picture," said East principal Danette Seboe. "We want our school to be a place where all students and staff feel safe and welcomed and accepted."

Work will include giving teachers and other staff members tools to intervene when they hear something in the hallway, for example, and how to have discussions in class when difficult topics come up. At East this week kids will hear about cyber bullying; what it is, what it can mean legally and how it plays out in a school setting, Seboe said.

"Even though you are posting from home at 10 p.m., when it comes back into school students feel unsafe here, whether you are threatened by a specific student or in general," she said. "If it disrupts the school day it does need to be addressed by the school."

'It's sickening'

East senior Grace Rennquist says the hate speech she's seen on social media by her peers isn't widespread, nor is evidence of it at school. But in her four years, a group of students has targeted black and gay students unchecked, and it's worsened this political season, she said, leading up to the recent Facebook comments.

"It's sickening," Rennquist said. "They throw food at black kids ... it's real and it's ignored by teachers and administration ... if I was gay, black, anything but white at East High School, I would feel so uncomfortable."

East junior Dylan Junker was the target of one of the intolerant comments on Facebook in recent days. The student who targeted him also posted racist comments aimed at another East student — words that were circulated on the social media site.

"It really worries me that people think it's OK to do that," Junker said. "This is 2016. We can't have those views anymore. He said we should own black people. ... I hope this doesn't become a normality."

At Denfeld, students seemed aware of the graffiti incident but didn't know the details.

Denfeld sophomore Lauryn Anderson said after school on Monday she was worried it would worsen Denfeld's reputation.

"At any school it could happen," she said. "It was just one student, and it happened to be our school."

Denfeld senior Matthew Johnston said most students don't know exactly what was written and haven't seen photos of the graffiti, which has been removed.

Students don't want to make a big deal about it, he said, but want to make sure it doesn't happen again.

'Outraged and heartbroken'

Those behind the incidents should be held responsible, said Stephan Witherspoon, of the Duluth chapter of the NAACP. He said he wasn't surprised by what he's heard. In 2015 a photo of his nephew was altered by a Denfeld student to show a noose around his neck.

The NAACP and the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial group are ensuring families have support when these things happen, Witherspoon said, and "we need to pick them back up."

"A lot of kids, when they watch what Trump was saying about immigrants, about African Americans, people who have different sexual orientations — this was all very harmful ... We need to stand in solidarity and fight back in the right way against hate of all forms," he said.

In the wake of racist and homophobic rhetoric during the campaign and since the election, a community rally was held Sunday at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in downtown Duluth, organized by those "opposed to the promotion of hate in all its forms."

What's been seen is "abhorrent," and teachers and other staff are "outraged and heartbroken," said Duluth School Board chairwoman Annie Harala.

"We need to be vigilant about knowing our neighbors and building community with people who don't hold all of the exact same beliefs," she said.

Harala said that she believes that with the election of Trump, people seem to be more comfortable sharing intolerant opinions, "so we can't shove this aside and say it's one incident. It stems from a larger root of community and institutional-based biases."

Seboe said East staff are working to reassure students, and "we are immediately addressing every specific incident that we have reported to us."

At Denfeld, too, the incident is under investigation.

Board member Harry Welty said it was best not to overreact when it came to such behavior.

"I don't think throwing grease on the fire is going to help," he said. "Having a dire punishment for kids abusing their free speech rights isn't the solution."

What's happening in Duluth schools and elsewhere, said Carl Crawford, human rights officer for the city of Duluth, is "painful."

"It's not just painful for students of color, but for all students," he said. "It opens the opportunity for a wider conversation that is well overdue in our community, for how we see each other."

Kids are, in many cases, modeling what they see, he said.

"It's up to us, in a safe and protective way, to point out when these things happen ... and correct them," Crawford said. "You can't punish your way out of these conversations. We need a change of hearts and minds and souls."

Staff writer John Lundy contributed to this report.