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APNewsBreak: Minn. district near civil rights deal

By Chris Williams
Associated Press / October 24, 2011

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MINNEAPOLIS—A Minnesota school district must report to the federal government any future allegations of harassment against Somali students as part of a tentative agreement to end a civil rights investigation, the district's superintendent said Monday.

St. Cloud Superintendent Bruce Watkins said all but the final details of the agreement had been reached with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. The deal up for board approval Thursday night requires that the district make its schools more welcoming to Somalis; it finds that the district broke no federal rules in handling previous incidents, Watkins said.

If the deal is approved, it would end an investigation that began more than a year ago. In March 2010, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations requested a federal investigation into alleged harassment of Muslim students at two St. Cloud high schools during the 2009-2010 school year.

In May 2010, the district's own investigation confirmed some allegations that Somali students were harassed by non-Somali students. However, the district has argued that it responded appropriately. Watkins, who took the job after the complaint was filed, said the agreement doesn't contradict that.

"There are no findings, and by that I mean never has the (Office of Civil Rights) come out with a finding that the district was not in compliance," Watkins said. He said the agreement does not call for the district to pay any fines.

Watkins said the district has already begun making its schools more welcoming to the community's growing Somali population, including changes to the district's code of conduct, curriculum and complaint resolution policies. He said the tentative agreement is an "affirmation" of the district's improvements, and he welcomed the monitoring as a way to prove the schools are keeping their commitments.

The agreement also calls for the district to improve its system for gathering data about incidents involving Somali students and requires the district to share that information with the department's civil rights division, he said.

CAIR-MN President Lori Saroya said her group tried to persuade the district to make changes for a year before taking their complaints to the U.S. Department of Education. Since then, she said, the conditions in the schools have improved for Somali and Muslim students.

"I do feel that once the Department of Education got involved, the stakes got higher and there was more incentive for the school district to resolve these issues," she said. "Our goal is really to help the students and provide a safe, hostile-free environment."

At the same time CAIR filed its complaint about the St. Cloud schools, it also filed a complaint on behalf of Muslim students in Owatonna. That case was settled earlier this year with terms that appear similar to those in St. Cloud.

In that agreement, Owatonna schools agreed to provide the federal government with annual reports for three years. It also required the district to issue an anti-harassment statement to students, parents and staff, and train staff about discrimination.

Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said the St. Cloud case was considered still open and under investigation. He declined further comment.

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