To say it was a challenging year in our Eastern Carver County School District would be a major understatement. A spate of racial incidents – most at Chaska High School — has alienated many minority students and their parents and left them feeling unsafe. For the past six months — since December — those parents and their allies have been appearing at school board meetings to demand action.
After months of promises that weren’t followed up with action at both the school and district level, these community members organized themselves into a group called ROAR (Residents Organized Against Racism). In April, ROAR introduced an eight-point petition calling for specific steps to reform how our school district and its schools handle equity issues.
One of those eight points, a call to “change the leadership of Chaska High School” has become a flashpoint. A counter-petition on change,org was started and a contentious debate has begun on social media. This issue merits additional conversation in full context. That’s my purpose here: to discuss why some parents and community members have reached a breaking point with the current leadership of Chaska High School.
The school’s response has been problematic, here are some examples:
In September, three Chaska High School students attended the football game versus Chanhassen wearing blackface (one of these students also wore an Afro wig). Despite the presence of school- and district-level employees at the game, no action was taken in the moment to prevent the display of this harmful racial stereotype. Even after a second blackface incident in February — both being called “teachable moments” by Principal Jim Bach in media reports — there has yet to be a schoolwide discussion of the history and meaning of blackface.
In February, black students at Chaska High School approached school leadership about doing a series of posters celebrating Black History Month, because it is otherwise not memorialized at the school. Principal Bach rejected some of the poster themes, suggesting that they required additional context and dialogue. For a district that prides itself on “personalized learning”, this was a failure to give the necessary support to a self-initiated activity designed to help educate others — one that would have been especially valuable given that by that point in the school year, Chaska High had already suffered the two blackface incidents and a highly-publicized racial incident at Chaska Middle School East. A few weeks later, an overflow crowd filled the Chaska Event Center — which had been rented out by the parents of the black students who created the posters — to view the exhibit in its entirety. While many teachers and staff members were there, no members of the school- or district-level leadership teams attended this event.
In April, two white Chaska High School students were responsible for the creation and distribution of a fake Google Map that featured the faces of about 25 black students on a location labeled “Negro Hill”. The pictured students were subsequently called down to the office via the loudspeaker, where they were required to listen to a forced apology from the students responsible for the image — thereby further disrupting the students’ learning and not affording them the agency to decide whether they wanted to participate in such a “restorative justice” session. A few days later, one of the pictured students who did a media interview about the incident was subject to retaliation, where an obviously photoshopped social media post was reported as a threat by a parent of one of the students who distributed the “Negro Hill” image. Despite recognizing the threat report as not being valid, members of the Chaska High leadership team reported it to the police anyway, resulting in the student losing an entire day of learning and being needlessly subjected to the stress of being questioned by police investigators.
These are just three examples of how the school’s responses to these incidents – not the incidents themselves – have been less than optimal. Members of ROAR have identified several more such school-level responses that they feel have been similarly handled inappropriately.
Unintended harm is still harm
Much of the discussion surrounding these events by community members has focused on the unintentional nature of them. It is frequently referred to on social media that the boys dressed in blackface at the football game “just went too far” and “there were no racial intentions whatsoever” and “calling it a racial incident implies that it was done with intent”.
We need to dispel those mistaken notions.
When you dress in blackface (and, in one case, wear an Afro wig as well), you are engaging in racist behavior. Whether your intent was malicious or not doesn’t lessen the pain that the perpetuation of that harmful stereotype inflicts.
Similarly, decisions made by the Chaska High School leadership team may not have been made with malicious intent, but still caused harm. The failure to remove the three students dressed in blackface at the football game is to me the clearest example of this, but not the only one. Choosing to deny certain Black History Month poster topics may seem defensible to some people when viewed in isolation, but when placed in a larger context (such as the other racial incidents earlier in the year and leadership’s past support for other potentially divisive student-led initiatives like the pro-gun control protests after the Parkland shootings) one can understand why many would feel that this decision was not a wise and consistent application of a principal’s broad discretion to limit speech within a school setting.
Accountability must be modeled
A lot of the focus following these incidents from school leaders has been directed at making sure students have clear expectations for their behavior and an understanding of what the consequences will be going forward. That’s all well and good, but it only addresses part of the problem at this point.
As detailed above, the decisions made by Chaska High School leadership have opened up a trust gap between it and a significant portion of the students and parents in our community. Moving forward requires the administration to model the behavior it claims to expect of its students.
These issues are difficult, and we all should have the grace and space to make well-intentioned mistakes. But this requires more than the bland “we can always do better” sort of responses that the Chaska High School leadership team have offered so far.
At a minimum, this means a forthright accounting of where the Chaska High School leadership team has missed the mark in its handling of these incidents, an acknowledgement of the pain those actions have caused, an action plan for addressing those gaps next school year and beyond and clear evidence that the plan is being deployed. For a district and a school that has promised proactive communication and transparency on equity issues, this would be one useful step on a long road to where we need to be as a community.
Regardless of who is the principal at Chaska High School, real reform is required
As we finish the school year, the district administration and school board is facing hard decisions about how to move the district through the controversies that have marked the last few months.
At a personal level, I struggle with the call to replace the Chaska High School leadership. Like many white people in the community, I too have had several good interactions with Jim Bach. I served on the district’s E-8 Facilities Task Force from 2012-2014, when he was still principal at Chaska Middle School East. I found Bach to be open, inclusive, and a strong strategic thinker over my time on the task force. At the time, I was excited that my kids were slated to go to CMSE (and still felt that way when Bach took the job at Chaska High).
But I can’t stop fielding questions from friends, relatives, and work colleagues who see our schools splashed on the news all too frequently for racial incidents.
And I also can’t unhear what other parents and students have told me about their experiences this year – experiences that don’t correspond with what I thought I knew.
In April, I sat at a meeting organized by the school district to discuss equity issues where minutes after district leadership promised transparency on equity issues, two black girls sitting at my table passed around their phones showing us the “Negro Hill” image which had been circulating for days but had not yet been communicated by the district. I was appalled and angry and embarrassed. But what really broke my heart was the reaction of the girls, who — while upset — seemed sadly resigned to this sort of thing as a regular part of life in our schools. They didn’t trust that the leaders at the school would stand up for them because they had been let down before. No one should have to feel that way at Chaska High School or anywhere else.
In recent months, I’ve heard variations of that story from many other parents and students. Some parents have pulled their children out of our district because they fear for them. Others are worn down from fighting this battle for years. And some worry about retaliation if they tell their stories publicly. If you haven’t talked to someone who has had one of these experiences, you should. Watching the April school board meeting is a good start. Once you’ve heard these stories, you can no longer deny the seriousness of this issue.
If no one in the school or in the district office is going to have the back of those two girls who sat at my table, all their black and brown classmates and their families, then it’s up to us — all of us — in the community to do so. For these reasons, I’ve joined with these parents and community members in ROAR to help lift the voices of those who have been ignored for too long and to call for real reform in how our district operates.
The other points on the ROAR petition (measurable accountability, restructured equity leadership & advisory groups, anti-racism policy & protocols, trauma-focused & victim-centered protocols, updated curriculum, more diverse faculty & staff, and monthly updates from the district) have received broad support – even from many of those who have signed the change.org petition. I’m glad they are supportive of measures to improve the equity in our schools, and wish they had been there since December (or even since April), too. The district’s response to the ROAR petition shows that they now understand that these steps are necessary.
No, the school district and Chaska High School leadership are not solely responsible for these incidents happening. (Although, one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the early incidents had been handled more effectively.) But it’s not acceptable for minority students to suffer additional damage every time because the staff at our schools don’t know how to respond to these incidents properly. These students should not be further victimized by leaders who are behind on the learning curve.
We must demand better for the sake of the entire community. The trust gap must be closed. It is up to the district to take any and all necessary steps — including personnel changes, if needed — to ensure that the leadership team at Chaska High School is properly equipped to handle such incidents and that they will no longer engage in behaviors that make the problems worse instead of making students feel safe and welcomed.
And it’s up to us — all of us — to hold the district accountable for doing so.