Racist Snapchat messages pushed Grand Forks Public Schools leaders to form a task force and rethink the school’s bullying policies earlier this month.

But this isn’t the first time district leaders have been told about students’ racist or discriminatory behavior. Amal Abdi and Aisha Hassan, who created a Change.org petition that helped circulate screenshots of the Snapchat group far and wide, said Somali students and parents have brought their concerns to district staff before.

“I feel like, from their end, the school and (others) think, ‘oh my goodness, this is the first time we’re seeing something like this,’” Abdi told the Herald as Hassan chuckled. “On our end, it’s like, no, this has been going on for a very long time and you guys have been very blind to it. You have not been seeing it.”

In February 2019, for instance, a group of Somali parents and an attorney met with several district administrators, including Catherine Gillach, an assistant superintendent, to address claims of racially-motivated bullying at South Middle School: a ripped-off hijab, “terrorist” taunts, and accusations of minority students carrying the ebola virus. A district “action plan” also indicated that some students used racial slurs.

“They were just upset that all of this was happening to not just one or two children, but a set of children, a lot of them,” Erik Escarraman, the attorney who showed up with the parents and acted as a sort-of press liaison for them at the time, said Monday. “I was listening to some really terrible stories. I hate to have to admit that sometimes these kids – they know about these things, but in a wrong way. They know that these kids are not from the United States. Some of them are born here, but the thing is that they seem different and obviously are pegged for it.”

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Abdi and Hassan – Abdi graduated in 2017 from Central High and Hassan in 2017 from Red River – both readily recalled times when they have felt discrimination. For example, a teacher refused to allow Hassan to pray as a class waited for the bell to ring during Ramadan, she claimed.

The recent Snapchat group, according to a few members and a parent, took a turn from teen-aged back-and-forth about rural life to outright racism shortly after a George Floyd demonstration earlier this month in Grand Forks. Screenshots of the chat showed members using the n-word, saying black people are “bad bad” people who should “burn,” and telling a member who pushed back that they “should be with” Floyd.

Screenshots of the Snapchat conversation circulated far and wide, including a video on TikTok, another social media platform, that garnered 1.2 million views, and in a Change.org petition calling for repercussions that garnered nearly 5,900 signatures just a few days later.

According to a parent of one of those originally involved, many left the chat when they realized it was becoming racist. The chat’s name was later changed to “White Power,” apparently without the knowledge of many of those who originally participated. Most of those involved in the chat are current or former Central High School students.

The Herald has chosen not to include the names of those involved.

“This issue is not a Central High School issue or a Red River High School issue. It is the Grand Forks Public Schools’ issue,” Hassan said. “I feel like whether you go to Central High School, whether you go to Red River, South Middle School – everyone, a minority who goes there has … a racial discrimination story.”

So what’s different now? Why didn’t the district put together a task force, say, two winters ago?

“I think it’s only logical, given our climate, nationally and internationally, that we would take this step,” Superintendent Terry Brenner said Wednesday. “Based on the gravity of what was said in Snapchat … how vile, vulgar, racist, those comments were, to me, it was a need for a call to action.”

Gillach said the district has typically handled accusations of racist bullying within the school where it allegedly occurred. The Snapchat group that prompted the task force was composed of students and recent graduates from Central High School and elsewhere, and the messages were sent off school grounds and not during school time.

“That, paired with what’s happening both locally and nationally,” Gillach said. “Those are the two catalysts, if you will.”

After that meeting in February 2019, Gillach said, South administrators met with every student on either end of the alleged bullying and several families. They also organized conversations with students and seminars for staff there. In one of those seminars, presenters from the Global Friends Coalition, a Grand Forks nonprofit that tries to help refugees integrate, told teachers about how education works in Somalia, where home and school life are more integrated, and how it differs from education in the United States, where they’re more compartmentalized.

“That school was able to really dig into some underlying issues that they truly weren’t fully aware of,” Gillach said. “I think that the individuals within the school, meaning students, families, parents, would basically say what has changed is a better sense of true feeling of welcome for every person who walks in the door.”

South counselors this year have had regular luncheons with students affected by last year’s behaviors, Gillach said.

Cynthia Shabb, a Grand Forks Public Schools board member who heads Global Friends, said she put together a list of teachers’ biggest takeaways from one of the seminars for South staffers and the questions they still had. Shabb said she submitted it to district staff, but wasn’t sure what happened with it after that. South Middle School got a new principal around that same time.

The February 2019 meetings resulted in no policy changes at the district, Brenner said.

Gillach said that, beyond anecdotes in which students reported that the alleged bullying was now behind them or that they felt more welcome, the district could measure the success of the meetings via responses to student and parent surveys it administers regularly.

Those surveys, the results of which district staff provided to the Herald, ask students how strongly they agree or disagree with a series of statements about their school. But staff removed a “neutral” response option after the spring of 2019, which makes gauging changes in South students’ opinions tricky.

Regardless, 58.1% of the 525 students who responded to the spring 2019 survey said they agree that the school is a safe place, and 9.3% disagree. Nearly a third of students – 32.6% – indicated they had no opinion or didn’t know.

In a similar survey administered in the fall of 2019, after the district removed the middle-of-the-road response option, 79.2% of 518 students at South agreed their school is a safe place and 19.3% disagreed – 1.5% weren’t sure.