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Racist cellphone chats stun community

A social media message between four teenage boys from Cloquet and Esko that was filled with derogatory statements about Native Americans left many students, parents and district staff reeling in shock last week.

It also put Cloquet and Esko on the list of schools around the state that are dealing with what feels like a wave of overt racism, including students making monkey noises at Black basketball players and other students flashing a known white supremacy sign.

In the case of the local students, it was a Snapchat thread Thursday afternoon, at a time the Esko students had been evacuated from school because of a bomb threat. A screenshot of the conversation reveals an Esko student saying he wouldn’t want to come to school in Cloquet “with the tribe” and others agreeing, and a Cloquet student responding that he wished “our school got bombed and all natives die.” The conversation included other racist statements about Native Americans.

Someone shared a screenshot of the Snapchat and it spread through social media quickly.

Reactions were swift and are still unfolding.

Cloquet Indian Education director Teresa Angell said her first instinct after seeing the Snapchat thread was to make sure all students felt safe. “That means identifying supportive spaces for students to talk openly, and allowing students to express their feelings while guiding them to not return the hatred,” she said.

Cloquet administrators addressed the entire high school via the speaker system, starting with the message that the school community “will not tolerate racial profiling or any racist or hate language.”

“It is intolerable that a Cloquet student would speak, think or condone the racist thoughts expressed in this message,” Cloquet administrators said.

Esko released a very similar message to students, staff and parents.

“In addition to addressing the offenders, we will renew our ongoing efforts to build a culturally competent school community, free of intolerance, ignorance, and hate,” the Esko statement read. Both districts acknowledged they “share responsibility in shaping the character of our students.”

Other threats

The students who wrote the messages — whose names are part of the screenshot — have allegedly been threatened since the screenshot of their conversation hit the internet.

Cloquet police chief Derek Randall said police are aware of both the initial Snapchat messages and later messages. So far, they don’t believe either report rises to the level of a crime, although they will forward their investigative results to a prosecutor for review.

“The schools of those involved and a state educational agency are reviewing the information,” Randall said.

Minnesota State High School League officials did not respond to a Pine Knot News email before presstime Wednesday, but in a memo to schools after several acts of racism in high school sports in the Twin Cities metro in February, the statewide organization proposed an initiative to improve behavior at schools and school events.

Cary said Monday he has heard people are confusing the racist Snapchat messages with the gun threat to the middle school on Thursday, with rumors going around that there was a “serious threat to a group of students.”

That’s not true, he said. There was no cause and effect.

“The gun threat and the comments are completely separate incidents,” Cary said. “We had comments by teenagers that were inappropriate, and a threat of gun violence against a particular building.” The threats came on Wednesday for Thursday, and the comments were written Thursday afternoon.

Ongoing response

Fond du Lac Reservation Business Committee members also weighed in on the racist messages.

“We are horrified and saddened by the ignorant and racist statements of students from schools where many of our Native youth attend,” Fond du Lac tribal leaders said in a letter to the Cloquet and Esko superintendents on Friday, which was also posted to the Fond du Lac website. “It is imperative that our schools remain safe places for ALL students to attend, including Native and minority youth. Our students cannot receive an education they are entitled to under the law if they feel unsafe and unwelcome in their own schools.”

Roughly 27 percent of students in Cloquet schools identify as Native American.

The RBC letter went on to say that school districts “must teach all students the harms of racist and violent rhetoric and impress upon our community’s youth the importance of treating all people with respect and dignity.”

Cary said he was very happy Band representatives reached out. He told school board members Monday that he, Angell and CHS principal Steve Battaglia, along with Esko school officials, were arranging a meeting with RBC members.

In an interview with the Pine Knot News, Cary stressed that the district takes these things very seriously, but declined to comment on what kind of disciplinary measures the Cloquet student will face.

Public statements from both schools cited state law and student privacy when asked about specific consequences for the students involved, but addressed discipline in general.

“This event has materially and substantially disrupted education in our school building, infringing on the rights of others to a safe educational environment and will lead to appropriate disciplinary action, individualized education targeting these racist beliefs, and restorative practices to address the harms caused by ignorance,” the Cloquet statement said.

Restorative practices adopted by the Cloquet district in recent years should play a role. The restorative approach to behavior uses tools such as talking circles, restorative thinking reports (to process what happened) and mentor-led conflict resolution versus old-school punitive measures such as suspension or expulsion. It works to help both the perpetrators of an act and the victims, in many cases.

“I respect the restorative practices approach to repair harm,” Angell said. “It is evident that the racist comments screenshot has caused harm. Cloquet Schools has multiple skilled professionals that work closely with restorative practices and I believe that their roles will help determine an approach to define responsibility with a result of accountability.”

Angell said she worked closely with CHS administrators on the statement they made to all students, as well as discussing conduct and discipline, making sure community voices are heard in the wake of the incredibly racist words.

Longterm, she wants to look at systematic approaches to embed local tribal history and culture into the district’s educational values.

“I’m also a very proud member of the Fond du Lac community, parent to Native children, foster parent to FDL children, Native myself, and Cloquet-born and -raised,” Angell said. “My hope is something positive to come out of this disheartening event.”

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