Feds, Owatonna school district reach settlement addressing racial tensionsby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The Departments of Education and Justice have reached an agreement with the Owatonna Public Schools involving allegations of race and national origin harassment.
The federal agencies became involved after tensions between white and Somali students escalated into a fight in 2009 at Owatonna High School involving 11 Owatonna students.
In a statement released Tuesday, the Departments of Education and Justice said an investigation found Owatonna public schools "meted out disproportionate discipline for the students involved in the November 2009 incident and that the district's policies, procedures and trainings were not adequately addressing harassment against Somali-American students."
After a 17-month investigation, the district has agreed to take all reasonable steps to ensure that students enrolled are not subject to harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. The district also agreed to respond promptly and appropriately to all reports of harassment.
Superintendent Tom Tapper said, since the 2009 incident, officials have worked to create an open environment and address these issues district wide.
"We've created a diversity work group among our employees, and all of our minority liaisons are part of that group," Tapper said. "And so we've had ongoing discussions of what's working in our schools and what things we need to do differently."
Tapper says the district is in the process of training all faculty, staff and students on discrimination and harassment. Officials also agreed to meet with high school Somali students to discuss their concerns about harassment.
The statement credited the Owatonna superintendent and school district for addressing the harassment and unequal punishment at the time and voluntarily working with the federal government.
According to the agreement, Owatonna schools must investigate allegations of harassment, including racially derogatory remarks, graffiti or email. By Aug. 1, 2011, the schools promise to send statements of its new policy on harassment to students and teachers, as well as post the policy at the high school.
The Owatonna school district also will hire a consultant to work on a plan for dealing with racial incidents.
About 17 percent of the Owatonna school district is minority students.
The district must report back to the Justice Department by Aug. 1 on the steps it has taken.
The St. Cloud school district is also the target of a federal investigation over accusations of not providing a welcoming environment for minority students.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.