Owatonna settles probe into Somali harassment

Published 6:59 am Wednesday, April 13, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — The U.S. departments of Education and Justice have reached a settlement with the Owatonna school district over alleged harassment of Somali students under which the district will give annual reports to the federal government for three years.

The deal announced Tuesday says the district will work to ensure students are protected. Among other things, it will issue an anti-harassment statement to students, parents and staff, and it will train staff about discrimination.

Owatonna schools Superintendent Tom Tapper said the district had already begun taking some steps in the agreement. “We began addressing these issues last fall and we continue in our commitment to maintain a positive learning environmental for all students,” he said.

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The settlement stems from a complaint filed in 2010 by the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations alleging Somali students were harassed at the high school, culminating with a November 2009 incident in which 11 white and Somali students fought.

The investigation found Somali students received disproportionate discipline and the district’s policies were not adequately addressing harassment against Somali students.

“All students have a right to go to school without fearing harassment from their peers, and schools have a responsibility to ensure students can exercise that right,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s civil rights division.

Lori Saroya, president of CAIR Minnesota, said Tuesday evening the group was happy the settlement was reached.

“We hope this will stop the harassment the students have been facing in the school and create a safe learning environment,” she said.

The state chapter of CAIR also filed a complaint against the St. Cloud schools last year. Education Department spokeswoman Sara Gast said that investigation is ongoing.