Dozens of community members—students, parents, and activists—gathered outside Prior Lake High School on Thursday afternoon, denouncing the racist environment at the school while also rallying behind a Black student targeted by a racist video shared on social media.
Earlier this week, a video went viral of two White students lobbing racial slurs against 14-year-old Nya Sigin, a Prior Lake student who has struggled with her mental health in the past.
“I have had to deal with racism in my city for as long as I can remember. It’s disgusting. It needs to stop now,” Sigin said, speaking with a crowd of Black students and activists behind her.
“You don’t understand how much this means to me and my family,” Sigin continued. “This is where we can create real change. This happens here right now. I am so thankful for every single one of you.”
Current and former students recounted experiences with racism and Islamophobia in the school district, going back to elementary school, to supportive cheers from the audience. They said school administrators have long failed to address their concerns.
Student Suleka Adam said earlier in the school year, a student said the N-word in class and the teacher did nothing: “I feel like [the school] don’t take us seriously and they’re only talking about [the racist video] because all they care about is their reputation.
“I don’t really think they care about the students here. A lot of the things like that have been reported and are always swept under the rug. They never really listened to us,” Adam said.
At nearly the same time, the city of Savage organized a press conference at City Hall in an effort to show support for the community. Speakers included the Savage Police Chief Rodney Sawyer, Dr. Teri Staloch, Prior Lake-Savage Area school district superintendent, Sam Ouk, director of diversity and equity for the Prior Lake-Savage Area school district, Dr. John Bezek, Prior Lake High School principal, and Emily Gunderson, communications coordinator for the city of Savage.
“The school has an obligation to protect its vulnerable student polulation, not dismiss their complaints…”
“We know racism exists in our community,” Ouk said. “It would be a mistake to think that this is just an issue of Prior Lake High School and the Prior Lake school district.”
Reporters pressed administrators on how the curriculum is used to address racism at Prior Lake High School. “We talk about it in health curriculum. We talk about being a good person,” Bezek said. He also pointed out that the district has implemented a program called Building Assets and Reducing Risks, “where we talk about being a good person.”
When the principal was asked what specifically is being done to address racism, the superintendent stepped to the microphone. “Our curriculum is the Minnesota academic standards,” Staloch said. “There are places that deal with interaction with one another. And that begins with our earliest learners when we talk about friendship and kindness.”
She insisted that the district is working on the issue of racism and listening to the students. But she did not answer the question about how they are handling racist name-calling directly.
“Any report we get, we take seriously and investigate and take appropriate action,” insisted Staloch when asked how the district responds to students being targeted with racist taunts.
Students interviewed by the MSR asserted that the schools do not discipline students who call them racist names or shout racial epithets at kids of color in the school. They insist that it happens at the middle school and at Prior Lake Senior High and administrators never hold the perpetrators accountable.
Not an isolated incident
The protest also included students from other school districts for whom the viral video had prompted conversations and outrage around similar conditions. Student leaders with Students Organizing Against Racism (SOAR) in St. Louis Park said they recently had a teacher in their school say the N-word and they felt the progress, in that case, was insufficient.
“This stuff happens everywhere. We have been fighting. We have been protesting. We have had walkouts to stop the injustice that happens to our young Black kids,” said an organizer named Simone. “I am sick and tired of the racist system that has taught our students, our teachers, that what they’re doing is correct.”
An unnamed organizer with Edina Truth, a platform with over 700 anonymous submissions about the experiences of marginalized students at Edina High School, echoed their concerns and offered tips on uplifting student narratives.
Rights activist Lavish Mack organized the protest in solidarity with the students at Prior Lake Senior High, gathering several racial justice and police accountability activists from across the Twin Cities.
Johnathon McClellan with the Minnesota Justice Coalition said: “George Floyd was murdered only 22 miles from this high school. This is happening in your backyard and in your kids’ schools, putting your children at risk.”
McClellan called Prior Lake High administrators out, saying the “lack of action creates a hostile learning environment for students of color. The school has an obligation to protect its vulnerable student population, not dismiss their complaints or tell them they have to learn to deal with it. This is unacceptable.”
The attorney for George Floyd’s family, Jeff Storms, added that the movement for Black lives extends beyond policing reforms: “Minnesota is going to be a leader in civil rights and we’re not going to be known for these colossal failures.”
Another community speaker told the crowd that they had the right to go to school in a non-hostile environment. “This is not 1950’s Arkansas. Every time they call you out of your name or use a slur, you demand that the administration punish that person.”
Prior Lake High School’s Black Student Union said they are determined to build on the momentum.
“What my brothers and my sisters went through here is not going to happen to my little brother who’s coming to the middle school in two years,” said sophomore Achai Deng in an interview with the MSR. “Before I graduate, change is happening. Action is happening.”
A family friend organized a GoFundMe to raise college funds for Nya Sigin a day ago. The fundraiser has surpassed its $100,000 goal.
Henry Pan also contributed to this story.
Feven Gerezgiher is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.