Racism at Washburn

Washburn High School officials are citing privacy rules for refusing to say what discipline was handed to students who hung a black doll from a noose, but a blog that covers the minority-ethnic community in Minneapolis says the students responsible got only one-day suspensions.

According to KARE, a small group of students hung a “dark-skinned baby doll by its neck with a piece of string in one of Washburn’s stairwells.”

And it says the district punished those responsible, though it refused to say what the punishment was:

We do not accept racial intolerance in our school district. We are following the school district’s code of conduct in addressing the inappropriate behavior,” reads a statement issued by MPS. “We are also seeking opportunities for these students to take responsibility for their actions through restorative measures. The four students were involved to varying degrees. Because of student privacy, we are unable to share any specific disciplinary actions that were taken.”

KARE said it was unclear if any students were suspended, but blogger Donald Allen claims they received one-day suspensions.

The principal, Carol Markham-Cousins, issued this letter:

Dear Washburn Community,

This week’s message addresses an incident that happened at our school on Friday, January 11. Near the end of the school day, a small group of students engaged in an insensitive activity that involved dangling a dark-skinned baby doll by its neck with a piece of string. Students recorded the incident and images were posted on social media sites. School security cameras also captured the events.

An image such as the one described causes feelings of anger and humiliation, and we intend to provide a safe space for productive conversations to take place. I was informed after school on Friday and took immediate action. We are committed to following the school district’s code of conduct in any instance of inappropriate behavior.

This is an extremely disturbing occurrence and not reflective of the Miller Pride that we promote. Such insensitive behavior is intolerable in our school and school district, both of which are full of diversity and rich in culture.

Due to the gravity of this incident, we are responding in several ways. Aside from following the school district’s code of conduct in any instance of inappropriate behavior, we will be creating opportunities for these students to take responsibility for their actions through restorative measures. We are also seeking opportunities for students to work with our community partners who provide support services so they have the resources they need to be successful.

Because references have been posted on social media sites and students are talking about the incident, it is imperative that our community receives this message and understands that we are aggressively responding. Parents can help their students be safe on social media by teaching them about appropriate behavior, empathy, and how to report abuse to the website administrators and trusted adults at school or elsewhere.

We will promote open dialogue between students and staff in order to learn from this unfortunate episode and create opportunities to talk about race and respect.

Thank you.

Carol Markham-Cousins

Principal, Washburn High School

  • BJ

    Nice letter by the principal.

  • Cara

    This incident makes me feel so bad, as a parent of MPS students. Washburn has just recently developed a strong enough reputation in the city that local families (within walking distance) no longer feel the need to bus their kids to South or Southwest. I hope this doesn’t bring them back down.

  • Andy Gifford

    No, Cara. Washburn has had a great reputation as a high school for decades. They got shafted by NCLB and came back as a so-called “fresh start” school. It’s also been one of the more diverse high schools in the MPS system, with many Somali & Latino kids in attendance; as opposed to Southwest which is predominantly white.

    I’ve lived in/near Tangletown for nearly 3 decades. I attended Washburn in the early 90s. It’s never faired any better or worse than her other southside high school neighbors. But all it takes is one incident like this to sully a reputation.

  • Bob Collins

    I don’t know that white people are ever going to understand the power of the noose imagery.

    With Martin Luther King Jr., day coming up Monday, maybe some history teachers might provide some much-needed education on the subject.

  • cara

    Andy: I agree with much of what you said, however the reputation of Washburn was poor for quite a long while, including when my girls were heading off to high school. (We lived within walking distance of SW, so it was a moot point for us.) Friends who lived within blocks of Washburn didn’t send there kids there; they shipped them to South & SW. It could easily have been the diversity issue. Reputation trumps reality in the minds of many.

  • Jenny

    As a recent graduate of Washburn (Class of ’11- WOOOT), I must say that this is very detrimental to Washburn’s reputation. People have choices as to where they want to send their child to school and incidents like this make people second guess their choices. Washburn has struggled for so long to gain their reputation after the fresh-start and since the busing changed, this is just unacceptable. The district needs to stop covering up for the students who participated in the act to ensure the community that this is not tolerable. Three years ago an incident like this would not have happened due to the make-up of the students body. Now there are different types of students and different problems. The best thing for Washburn’s students is to stay out of the news and to continue working hard in all the areas in which they excel at. This is just a set-back and history has shown that Washburn, especially, can bounce back!!!

  • As a Washburn student in the 1970s, I remember well our annual race riots.

    The first riot began as a fight between a white kid and an African American kid having nothing to do with race (it was a personal dispute, as I remember), but which quickly escalated into a racial thing and went nearly school wide. .

    The other incident began as a food fight in the cafeteria when we suffered a power failure and the lights went out. Again, the spark had nothing to do with race, but it quickly became about race.

    The year of the first riot Washburn had a very weak principle (he reportedly hid in his office until the cops showed up). The year of the second incident the school had a very strong leader – Roland DeLapp. Prior to a choir concert the night after the riot DeLapp took the stage and told the community what had happened and how the Washburn community would respond to it., I remember it as an impressive anti-racism, anti-violence, pro-community statement.

    But that was a long time ago and my memory isn’t the best. Some enterprising alumn or current student might go back to see what the school paper and/or the Strib reported about these events. I’d also love for other alums from the period to chime in with their recollections of these events.

    Bottom line: there was no race riot at Washburn during my senior year.

    Leadership matters. I commend the school’s current administration’s response to this recent reprehensible act.

  • Patrick

    A reprehensible act, but I think it’s reasonable to trust school administrators to mete out the appropriate punishment. I was a super troubled kid, and not sure if I would make it out of High School these days with ‘zero tolerance’ policies, but the forgiveness and second chances given to me enabled me to go on to lead a good life. Administrators need to investigate to see if it’s an isolated instance of teens pushing the limits of acceptable behavior, and then decide what to do.

  • Ed

    I’ve got a son at Washburn, and from what I can tell, this was an act of stupidity, not racism. Washburn is a diverse school where everyone is welcome. This whole thing is a real shame.

  • Bob Collins

    Stupidity is the X chromosome of racism.

  • No doubt it was stupidity. It may have even been ignorant. But just because it wasn’t intended to be racist doesn’t mean it wasn’t racist.

    Only Don Allen (grain of salt, whatnot) has reported the race/ethnicities of the students involved. I’ve been assuming, by the lack of mention in all the other coverage I’ve seen, that they’re white. I’d imagine that if they were not white, that would be an element of the story worth reporting.

    As a person of color who lives six blocks from the school, I’ve got all kinds of questions and yet-to-be-resolved feelings about it. Hopefully Wednesday’s community forum is helpful in that regard.