ST. CLOUD — Following repeated instances of racial harassment at high school sporting events, district and community leaders here are calling on the Minnesota State High School League to implement meaningful change that bolsters support for schools and penalizes districts with repeated incidents.
The harassment — typically slurs that target St. Cloud students for their skin color, religion or gender — has happened when students visit other schools in the conference for athletic events. Those communities and districts are often much less diverse than St. Cloud schools, where about 60% of the nearly 9,500 enrolled are students of color and many are children of immigrants or refugees of East African descent.
"Some of the conversations I've had to have this year — and the looks on the faces of students when we're having some very adult conversations about why certain words were used … it's just not right," said Justin Skaalerud, principal at St. Cloud's Apollo High School. "We need to have a way that we can advocate for our kids — all kids."
Harassment isn't a new phenomenon in high school sports. But in the past year, there have been several high-profile incidents, including taunting that prompted some metro districts to sit out athletic contests with districts where their students were harassed.
These and other events spurred St. Cloud school board members last year to publicly ask the League — the organization overseeing extracurricular activities in more than 500 schools — to improve inclusivity and eliminate abusive and racist incidents among members.
In the past year, the League worked with a consultant to organize student summits that culminated in a Jan. 13 conference with several hundred students from across the state. Participants focused on developing a model code of behavior and looking at best practices to reduce harmful behaviors at school events.
But St. Cloud leaders say that doesn't go far enough in addressing their concerns.
"I think this is an important piece. We can have these conferences, the summits — but if we don't have action steps or mechanisms in place to report when our students are in environments where they feel unsafe, I think it's frankly a waste of time," said Jason Harris, principal of Tech High School in St. Cloud, at a recent school board meeting.
Erich Martens, executive director of the League, said the League is concerned by the growing instances of harassment and is prioritizing a solution. But he conceded more needs to be done. Next steps include the League releasing a code of conduct created with feedback from the student gatherings. Its board of directors is also discussing how to address repeated harassment.
"We need to continue to have the conversations around [the] level of consequence: Is it appropriate for it to be schoolwide? Is it appropriate for it to be specific to a team? Is it appropriate to be specific to the offenders?" he said. "And I think that's an ongoing conversation."
St. Cloud schools Superintendent Laurie Putnam said the push for change is part of a broader conversation about what kinds of "words and comments that we are and are not going to tolerate as a community."
"Kids have always had to hear or engage in different kinds of hurtful language, whether it's about race or gender or sexuality," she said. "And as adults, we're standing up and saying we aren't going to permit this to continue."
The League has a policy governing the conduct of students that says students engaging in harassment or violence are subject to ineligibility. The penalty for the first violation is two weeks or two events, whichever is longer, but it's up to local school administration to enforce and it is not tracked by the League.
Officials are able to fill out incident reports if harassment occurs at a game or meet and unruly fans can be ejected. Member schools are also able to report incidents by calling or emailing the League. Martens said the League works with member schools on an individual basis and has met with school leaders, including in St. Cloud. Martens plans to meet with St. Cloud school leaders in March to discuss their most recent pleas.
"If we have something that's reported between two schools, we are a part of that, beginning with the administrators and often times having numerous phone calls or even in-person meetings to chart a course forward," Martens said.
Sometimes, students decide to advocate for themselves.
Last fall, after members of Apollo's boys' soccer team were racially harassed at an away game, the team wrote a letter to that district.
"We all just want to play the sport we love and what we grew up with," the letter read. "We know that we both have really good teams and hope the next time we play it can be about soccer. We hope that in the future it can be a respectable match and we can all get along and be treated better."
St. Cloud students have also worked with administrators to create their own posters with spectator expectations asking fans to "stay above the line," meaning no taunting or animal sounds, no profanity and no politically, racially, culturally or sexually charged language or innuendos.
Other schools have also used the conversations from the League gatherings to set expectations for spectators, Martens said.
"Some of the best examples would include schools who have enlisted the work of positive student leaders within their fan groups and have revamped their cheering approaches," he said.
In addition to a more streamlined reporting system, St. Cloud school leaders are asking the League to implement penalties for programs where harassment is repeated, such as teams becoming ineligible for post-season play.
"I don't want it to come across like every team we play is this way; the vast majority of teams are wonderful," said Al Dahlgren, vice chair of the St. Cloud school board. "But when we do have incidents, there needs to be a method of reporting it and there needs to be an immediate investigation by the Minnesota State High School League. There needs to be severe consequences if it turns out to be true — severe enough so it stops the problem."
The district's calls for change are being amplified in the community, where parent and local organizer Chantal Oechsle started a letter-writing campaign to League board members asking for required sensitivity training for coaches and League staff, as well as an improved reporting system.
"They're Minnesota State High School League events," Oechsle said. "They need to be the ones that have the teeth and the accountability in these moments."