A call for action in the form of a petition authored by mostly former and some current Elk River High School students is seeking to change the culture of the District 728 high school to make it more supportive to people of color.

The petition, which has been signed by 2,611 individuals as of 9:30 a.m. Sept. 30, calls for the incorporation of Black history, inclusion, accountability and diversity within Elk River High School and across the district with high schools in Rogers and Zimmerman.

“BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) students need and deserve more. ...,” the petition states. “Many current and former BIPOC students have dealt with racial microaggressions and macroaggressions, in which there were little to no repercussions for these actions.”

The effort, which included a letter to the district and high school administrators as well as School Board members, has resulted in a meeting scheduled with Superintendent Dan Bittman, who in an email to the group expressed a willingness to work collaboratively with them.

The petition was started by Nicole Thue, a 2018 Elk River High School graduate and University of Minnesota student, and 18 others who either graduated from Elk River High School in recent years or still attend the school. It has picked up steam after another group based in Rogers joined the effort.

Rogers Community for Equity, a group of individuals interested in diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice, has also blossomed this year. The group aims to educate itself, learn from each other and provide space to lift up the marginalized voices.

Kirsten Santelices, the group’s founder, joined forces with the Elk River group in an effort to show a united front. They have offered up more than just signatures. They have created a letter that was read by the Elk River Area School Board into the record last month, and they plan to follow meetings for the foreseeable future as partners with the district in their efforts.

Current and former students have opened up about their experiences at Elk River High School. Examples cited include:

— Racial slurs.

— A student’s hijab was ripped off of her head.

— A group of white students screamed “white power” at a Black student.

— Derogatory statements regarding a student’s race written off as a joke.

— Students and faculty dismissing a BIPOC student’s emotions as overly dramatic, too sensitive or even “pulling the race card.”

— Presence of confederate flags on student’s vehicles and clothing.

— Putting BIPOC students on the spot during class for input regarding a racial subject.

— Students wearing a Black face for Halloween costumes and placing in contests.

— Hate symbols and speech written on student of color’s vehicle.

This last example is part of Thue’s story. It was a situation that at first blush she thought was something to laugh off on her way into school. One of her sibling’s vehicles had been painted on one side with “dumb kid stuff,” Thue said.

It was upon seeing the other side of the automobile, however, she realized it was more troubling than children’s play. The n-word and swastikas were written on the vehicle.

“We were shocked,” she said.

Thue’s family called the school and filed a police report, but said nothing ended up being done.

“It was a pretty traumatic experience for our whole family,” she said. “We knew there were issues, but we never had been personally targeted until that happened. It was shocking.”

In talking to friends at school the next day, the message she got was to stop being so dramatic.

“From that point on, I didn’t feel very connected with the school or the friends I had made at school,” Thue said. “I made a point to get away from the area; I ended up doing PSEO (Postsecondary Enrollment Option) my junior year.”

Thue said she tried attending special events at the high school as a senior, the PSEO student said it felt like she returned to a sea of ignorance. So, after graduating in the summer of 2018 she moved to Minneapolis to attend the U of M in search of more welcoming surroundings and a college degree.

Thue had been awarded a scholarship through the President’s Emerging Scholars’ program for being a first-generation biracial student attending the university. Through this she was introduced to a group of students who identified as being part of the BIPOC Affinity Group, a group for Black, indigenous and people of color.

“It was the first time I felt like I was a part of a group,” Thue said. “It opened my mind up to those perspectives. I always closed that off that aspect of myself. That’s how I was raised being mixed and not around many black folks.”

“Students in Elk River who are not racist are still scared to say the words ‘Black’ or ‘Asian,’” she said. “That’s a common way people are raised. You don’t want to point out what they are. You become colorblind to all of that stuff.”

Attending school at the U of M was an awakening for Thue. Fast forward to the spring of this year, however, and the trauma from her high school days resurfaced with the death of George Floyd and the events that happened in the Twin Cities in the aftermath of it.

Floyd died on May 25 after Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost eight minutes. He was charged with second-degree murder, and three other former officers were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. Prosecutors continue to try the case. Floyd’s death and the recording of it touched off protests and racial unrest.

“I couldn’t help but think about Elk River,” she said. “Anytime there were news reports, I couldn’t help but think about my hometown.”

One of her friends at the university, who had attended Mounds View High School and was also dealing with old wounds, wrote to her school district in May.

“She told me if you’re going to be active and be vocal about racial injustices and hold people accountable, you have to look back to where you were raised; otherwise your work is insignificant if you’re ignoring the issues in your hometown,” Thue said. “I decided I need to do something. If I don’t, I don’t think anybody else will.”

She began constructing a document, using the Mounds View student’s as a template.

“I had this experience, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t speaking over other students that had a different experience.”

She reached out to alumni with a post on Instagram so she could include other people’s perspectives. About 25 people reached out. Some had a lot to say. Others had less. About 15 people collaborated with Thue to start the petition, which ended up with 19 signatures before it was sent out through a petition platform.

The document was crafted over the summer months, and she sent it out when she felt it was fully equipped with all the things she wanted it to say.

That was the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 14.

Thue had already lost followers over the past several months in the run-up to that day, and she said she wasn’t expecting much of a response.

“It would get to people who cared,” she said, “and also get some people who cared.”

It blew up. People were sharing it with their friends and others. Some comments were nice and some not so nice, and Thue decided to post a video talking about the petition in the hopes it wouldn’t be misconstrued.

“I wanted people to understand,” she said. “I am ready to be more vocal.”

The petition took off overnight. There were 400 signatures that night, and by morning there were 800-900. It stalled out at about 1,200 or 1,300, she said.

In addition to the petition, Thue has published a letter that was sent to school officials. Thue got a response from Bittman right away too.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to. I know quite a few people who are doing this with their district with mixed reviews. I was kind of worried.”

She read the letter from Bittman with a mixture of excitement and nervousness, not knowing what it would say. In reading through it she sensed a willingness to partner and that the district administration cared.

“I felt relieved,” she said. “I feel there will be change.”

“I know it will still be a long process ahead, but just the fact that they want to start talking about it is a relief.”

She said she realizes that by talking, it will rattle a bee’s nest for people of color.

“I know opening this back up will not only bring back my trauma and everything everybody else has gone through.”

The petition took off again after Elk River High School’s virtual orientation was sabotaged and laced with pornographic images and racial slurs.

That’s when the Rogers Community for Equity got plugged into what was going on in Elk River, and there was talk of starting a petition, too.

Then Rachel Jackson, a member of the group, said there already was one. Santelices and Thue met and there was a decision to join forces in addressing concerns over racism and discrimination in the schools.

The focus of the Rogers group is a bit broader than the petition that was started in Elk River, but it speaks to where the group’s heart is at.

Santelices, a 32-year-old wife and mother of biracial children, reached out to the Rogers City Council when she moved to the community. She inquired about the idea of starting a human rights commission, an entity she has seen at work in another suburban community.

Then in the spring she reached out on a Rogers bulletin board about the topic of equity in the community, and the response was swift.

“Quite a few people responded, and we formed a Google group and started meeting once a month via Zoom.”

Group members delve into topics, read, and take in news reports and podcasts together, and they keep others interested and engaged with a Facebook page. The group has attracted the interest of Rogers City Council Member Shannon Klick, Santelices said.

One of the group’s members, Therese VanBlarcom, a former member of the Elk River Area School Board, and some other members of the group crafted a letter that was read at open forum at an Elk River Area School Board meeting last month to get some points across without filling the board room while safety precautions are in place during a pandemic.

VanBlarcom’s statement read in part: “We see ISD 728 as a partner in an effort to educate, not only ourselves, but the broader community related to (diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice). Our intent is to help identify needs in the community, offer support, and advocate for the underrepresented and marginalized members of our communities.

“The school district has a long-understood obligation to the students, staff and families of ISD 728 to provide safe spaces for students and staff to learn in and thrive, and we are here to support initiatives to achieve those ends.”

VanBlarcom said the group is committed to working toward ensuring community spaces are safe spaces.

“We are present, we are listening, we are learning, we are willing to do the hard work and we are allies,” the letter stated.

It is with similar sentiment that Bittman and others in the school district have responded to the petition and calls for change.

“We are disappointed anytime a student or family does not have as good of an experience as we would like in our schools, cities, townships and counties,” Bittman said.

“We are particularly excited to begin conversations with community leaders about how we can best collaborate and support each other to ensure all people have an amazing experience in our schools and communities.

Santelices, who works in city government for a community of about 22,000, said the Rogers group will continue follow the School Board for the foreseeable future.

The letter prepared by Thue and others that was sent to school administrators has many requests, including ones related to accountability, curriculum, the student handbook, the hiring of teachers, counselors, and equity specialists.

“Within the Elk River community, our neighborhoods are becoming more diverse,” the letter to administrators said. “However, Elk River itself has not changed and is not equipped to support students from non-white backgrounds. Therefore, the implementation of these changes is crucial for the success of BIPOC students.”

Thue, Santelices and Jackson will meet with Bittman on Oct. 7.

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