Listen: PKG: Racist incidents (Shockman)

MPR’s Elizabeth Shockman reports on racist incidents at Metcalf Middle School in Burnsville. Students and staff recount multiple experiences of racial slurs at school, including offensive words spoken by principal Shannon McParland.


2020 MNSPJ Page One Award, first place in Radio - Hard News Report category


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SPEAKER 1: A Burnsville middle school principal apologized during the last school year after she was videotaped repeating a racial slur at school. But teachers, students, and parents say that video seemed to give others license to use the epithet. As our Elizabeth Shockman reports, some say a culture of racism and retaliation poisoned John Metcalf Middle School.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: It started with the N-word on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, directed at John Metcalf Middle School students of color. Then came the racist jokes in the hallways about picking cotton. Then someone posted a makeshift sign at a water fountain reading "for whites only."

Ameera Ally says she was regularly called the n-word at Metcalf. She's 14 and an A-student who graduated eighth grade this year. She says she's loved school for as long as she can remember, but by the end of this school year, Ameera says she was regularly coming home from class in tears.

AMEERA ALLY: I love school. I've always grown up loving school and stuff. I barely went to school this year. I didn't want to go. I begged my mom, like, don't let me go. I don't want to see any of the administration because they're going to make up stuff about me or my friends. They're going to try to get me in trouble.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: In interviews, 19 parents, teachers, staff, and students involved in the Metcalf community described a poisoned school culture. They paint a picture of a school where racism appears to have been tolerated by school leaders, a place where the victims of racist incidents and staff who tried to help were not only not listened to, they felt they were actually punished and threatened for speaking up.

SPEAKER 2: I feel like I'm hopeless.

SPEAKER 3: I don't feel treated the same way as every other kid is treated.

EGRAH AUDIL: I don't feel safe there or welcome or whatever.

AMEERA ALLY: And even right now, I want to cry because it hurts. I'm very exhausted.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: Recently, Ameera met at a coffee shop with some of her classmates to talk about their experiences at Metcalf Middle School. All the students were Black and female. They pointed to a day about seven months ago as a pivotal moment when things got much worse at school. That was the day a student posted a video of Metcalf's principal, Shannon McParland, online.

The clip showed McParland repeating profanity and the n-word to other staff in the school office, expressing surprise after a student had directed the slur at her earlier in the day.

SHANNON MCPARLAND: Like, seriously? You're going to call me a [BLEEP].

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: McParland apologized after the clip went public, writing in an email to families that, quote, "Even repeating the words was inappropriate and hurtful." She added, quote, "Words have power, and few words have a more hateful and destructive history." McParland, together with other district representatives, declined to be interviewed in person for this story. Metcalf students and teachers say the video's impact on the school's culture and atmosphere was immediate and profound.

EGRAH AUDIL: When she said the N-word, yeah, everything changed. The Caucasian kids, all of a sudden, most of them started saying like, "snigger" and stuff like that. Yeah, they make racist jokes and stuff. And I feel like they would have never said anything if it wasn't for Mrs. McParland saying the N-word.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: That's Egrah Audil, Ameera's classmate, who also graduated eighth grade at Metcalf this year. The Burnsville-Eagans-Savage District said in writing that it and Principal McParland recognize her words did cause harm. It said she apologized and participated in a school community meeting focused on equity.

After the video came out, Ameera, Egrah, and eight or so other Black eighth-grade girls wanted to address racism at their school. They wanted to organize a Black student union, a group focused on promoting academic excellence and inclusivity for African-American students at Metcalf. Here's Ameera.

AMEERA ALLY: Black Student Union was like a dream for us to do. So we wanted it to be like people who are being bullied and stuff so they can talk to us, because we will understand them.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: At first, it seemed to Ameera that Metcalf school leaders were enthusiastic about the Black Student Union, or BSU. But within just a few weeks, Ameera says, Metcalf school leaders started making the girls jump through hoops they say no other student group had to. Then in February, Ameera and her teacher, Greta Krupke, say all of the BSU girls and their parents were called in for meetings with Principal McParland or other school leaders.

They say school leaders told them the Black Student Union was having a bad influence on them, negatively affecting their attendance and grades. Krupke believes that school leaders were racially targeting the 10 girls who wanted to form the Black Student Union.

GRETA KRUPKE: The last straw for me, though, the very last straw where I said this is enough, is when all 10 of those girls were called in during conferences with their parents to say how poor of grades they had, that they were skipping, that this BSU was getting in the way of their learning and their time at our school when in fact, the incidents that were skipping were the times that they went down to talk about someone calling them the N-word. When they were all called in for those conferences, I knew they were being targeted.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: When asked about these incidents, the district said in a written statement it couldn't respond specifically due to student and staff privacy requirements. They said school leaders were supportive of the idea of a Black Student Union, and what was asked of the Black Student Union was not unusual. Meanwhile, the students believed the racist incidents at Metcalf were getting worse.

When a student called them the N-word or made another racist joke, Ameera and her BSU classmates say they sometimes tried quietly confronting the student in person. Other times, they complained to their teachers or went down to the school office. But Ameera says Metcalf school leaders seemed annoyed with her for making a big deal out of it.

AMEERA ALLY: The all-aggressive Black girls, that's what they said to us during a meeting one time.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: Greta Krupke and another teacher, Laura Ngeh, say they believe the school retaliated against them when they raised concerns with how the school was handling racist incidents. Ngeh, one of only two Black licensed professionals at Metcalf this last year, says she felt the principal implied she could lose her job after Ngeh raised concerns about the school's N-word policy at a staff meeting. A few weeks later, the principal told Ngeh her contract would go unrenewed for budget reasons.

LAURA NGEH: It hasn't been pleasant. I guess this year really opened my eyes. I told myself a few months ago that after this year, I won't be a teacher based on what I have witnessed. Again, I feel like I advocate for my students more than teach. And it's usually advocating for them based on racism.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: When asked about these incidents, District 191 said a formal complaint exists against Greta Krupke that is currently being investigated. It said it couldn't respond in detail to other questions due to student and staff privacy requirements. Krupke says the complaint against her alleges she made false claims and disrupted the educational process. The St. Paul NAACP says it received separate complaints about racism at Metcalf from four people connected to the school and several others have substantiated those claims.

An NAACP Secretary says it, together with District 191, are currently in mediation talks with the Minnesota Department of Human rights. Jim Hilbert is the education officer for the St. Paul NAACP. He's also a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. He says his NAACP office has seen a significant rise in the number of complaints about racist incidents in schools. And not just at Metcalf, but throughout the East Metro.

JIM HILBERT: And the administrators look at it as an individual incident, but the students look at it as the final straw. This is happening in a school system where we have some of the worst disparities in the country. And until we talk about it in those contexts, these individual complaints are going to be brushed off by the larger public as oh yeah, that was a one-off, a standalone. We can address that, situation fixed. It's not fixed, not even close.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: For some Metcalf families like Ameera, her sister, and her mother, Hawo Awad, the situation is definitely not fixed. They've already decided to leave District 191.

AMEERA ALLY: I just want to focus on my schoolwork and get school finished.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: The 14-year-old is hoping her ninth grade year will go better in a new school and a new district. Elizabeth Shockman, MPR News, Burnsville.

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