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Cass Lake-Bena School district faces tough issues of school safety, racism

BEMIDJI - The Cass Lake-Bena School District is trying to piece together what happened two weeks ago when more than two dozen students were pulled out of class for wearing the color red.

Cass Lake-Bena High School Principal John Klinke, left, tells a group of 30 people at a Local Indian Education Committee meeting Oct. 19 what happened the day more than a dozen students were pulled out of class. On the right is Luann Frazer, the Cass Lake-Bena School District's Director of Indian Education. Pioneer Photo/Anne Williams

BEMIDJI - The Cass Lake-Bena School District is trying to piece together what happened two weeks ago when more than two dozen students were pulled out of class for wearing the color red.

After a group of students at Cass Lake-Bena High School came to school Oct. 13 all wearing the same color, school administrators pulled the students out of class and spoke to them about safety concerns. Two school resource officers from the Pike Bay Police Department in Cass Lake were called in to attend the informal meeting at the school.

Later that evening a group of concerned parents and students attended a Local Indian Education Committee to voice their concerns about what had happened earlier that day.

"The way it was handled was a big misunderstanding for a lot of people," said Luann Frazer, the school district's Director of Indian Education. "Parents felt that some of the kids were being singled out not just because of the color red. There were a lot of hurt feelings coming from the community."

A follow-up LIEC meeting was held Oct. 19 with roughly 30 school board members, staff, teachers, students, parents and community members present. Before a discussion began, a moment of silence was taken to remember Interim Superintendent Diane Lehse, who died Oct. 17.


High School Principal John Klinke said students were taken out of class after a school administrator had received a viable threat at school on Oct. 13.

"We had some students, who were native students, being harassed in the hallway in regards to what they had on," Klinke said. "We had several students come forward and express they wanted it to stop."

Klinke said a threat was painted on the sign outside the high school that was threatening students who wore red.

"The administrator at the time thought he needed to give kids a warning that it was threatening other students," Klinke said. "It had nothing to do with whether they were gang-affiliated or not. We had some gang-taskforce officers willing to come in and talk to the students."

A high school senior, who helped mastermind the group of students to wear red to school that day, attended the LIEC meeting Oct. 19.

"We all wore red because while some children's parents are involved in school matters, some parents won't speak for their children if they get into trouble. So, I asked everyone to wear red," the student said.

The student wanted to grab the attention of administrators, but did not realize only students wearing red would be pulled out of class.

"I thought it was going to be as a student body," the student said. "I didn't think they were going to hand pick all these students. I wanted to get students, parents and the community involved, but that wasn't happening. No one was going home and telling their parents they were being harassed."


Zeb Hemsworth, Pike Bay police chief, takes school threats such as the Oct. 13 incident seriously. To him, groups of students who coordinate their appearances and hang out in large groups are often a cause for concern.

"It's more than just colors of clothing; it's also a pot leaf on a hat, a left pant leg rolled up or gang signs written on a hand," Hemsworth said in a phone interview prior to the Oct. 19 meeting. "Some people don't understand what we see. Parents, even though officers explained the situation, made it into a racial issue. I couldn't have been more offended by that. Administrators and law officers working in schools want to keep kids safe."

The Pike Bay school resource officers were unable to attend the Oct. 19 meeting because of a scheduled training exercise, Klinke said.

But some parents and students feel the school district unfairly reprimanded students that day, reasoning that red is a sacred color in the Anishinaabe culture.

Mike Robinson, a Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal Police officer, said he thinks the students are victims of racial profiling.

"The bottom line is there is a lot of racism and teachers don't understand the kids," Robinson said. "The police officers have to understand where Indian kids are coming from. These kids want an education, not to be profiled, picked on and held in a room because of certain clothes they wear... That's profiling."

The school district currently has a contract with the Pike Bay Police Department which provides police officers to the school.

"We had Pike Bay here (last year) and that officer was non-Indian, but he had a rapport with these students," school board member Jolyn Donnell said. "They respected him. I questioned if we would have the same rapport with the new officer coming in. I told the board we had to wait and see."


According to Frazer, the school district requires staff and administrators to learn about the American Indian culture and language through an annual in-service.

"We eat together and we take them to meet people," Frazer said. "Once a year our whole district goes through diversity training. Maybe we need to start offering that to Pike Bay police officers."

LIEC member and school district employee Terri Vail said Pike Bay Police did as they were told by administration.

"We need to look at our local and native candidates and give them a chance to be in our buildings," Vail said. "I think we need to have community support for the staff that we have. We need to ask, 'What can we do to make our children more comfortable with staff and police officers and make this a better place?'"

Klinke said the school district must follow protocol when dealing with disciplinary issues.

"We are on a very complicated, comprehensive school improvement plan," Klinke said. "How an administrator goes about issuing discipline to students is monitored very closely. It has to be very consistent. It's monitored by me, the superintendent and the Minnesota Department of Education."

At the Oct. 19 meeting, two members of the LIEC said two weeks prior to the red shirt incident at the school, student representatives came to an LIEC meeting and talked about their concerns of student groups wearing same-colored clothing.

"We asked the student representatives, 'What are some of the issues you feel are going on in the school? What would you like to change?'" Vail said. "They said not letting groups of 10 or more students wear the same colors every day because they get intimidated by it."


Vail said before the meeting adjourned, the group decided the best course of action was to have administration address the issue with students.

"We said, 'We need to stop some of this before it goes too far,'" Vail said.

Mutt Robinson a member of the LIEC, was also at the meeting prior to Oct. 13. He said he was disappointed to hear about what happened especially after the issue was talked about weeks earlier.

"I asked myself, 'How did this get to this point when we already talked about it? How did this happen?'" Mutt Robinson said.

Cass Lake community member Rich Robinson said he thinks parents need to be more invested in their children's education.

"A vast majority of parents in school want their kids to come to a safe school," Rich Robinson said. "There's a certain segment of the population that are not addressing gangs and drugs with their students. We have to have that portion of our parents who are not involved in their child's education and help them become involved in a good way."

A follow-up meeting is scheduled for Nov. 3 in the Cultural Room at the Cass Lake-Bena High School.

The Bemidji Pioneer and the Herald are both Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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