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Minnesota Students Walk Out Of School To Protest Racial Injustice

Students hold signs during a walkout at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn., where participants spoke, sang and did trauma-healing exercises together on the football field Monday.
Students hold signs during a walkout at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn., where participants spoke, sang and did trauma-healing exercises together on the football field Monday.

When Armya Williams heard last week that a Brooklyn Center, Minn., police officer had shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop, she knew she needed to do something.

"After Daunte Wright, I was like, 'Really? It hasn't even been a year since George Floyd died,' " Williams said. "I was just like, we need to do something. So I started brainstorming, getting ideas from other students and I came about a walkout. That's one way we can get our voices heard."

Williams, 17, is a senior at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn. As she was coordinating plans with other students for her school's walkout, she learned that high schoolers in other parts of the state were doing the same.

Students cheer after Jalen Silas-Burch performed a spoken-word piece during a walkout at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn., where participants spoke, sang and did trauma-healing exercises together on the football field on Monday.
Nicole Neri / MPR News
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Students cheer after Jalen Silas-Burch performed a spoken-word piece during a walkout at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn., where participants spoke, sang and did trauma-healing exercises together on the football field on Monday.

By the time Monday had rolled around, students in dozens of Minnesota schools — from Minneapolis and St. Louis Park to Roseville, Osseo, St. Peter, Sartell and St. Cloud — had signed on to lead marches and rallies to protest racism. They organized on social media.

In Oakdale, with a late April snow blowing from the sky, Williams led a column of hundreds of students — more than a third of the school's in-person student body — out the front entrance and around the football field.

"Stand in solidarity"

At the same time — just after 1 p.m. — an hour away in central Minnesota, dozens of students rallied around the flagpole at Becker High School, braving blustery winds as they carried signs, chanted and listened to speeches.

Junior Nick Roehl, who helped organize the walkout, said he thought the event was important for the Becker High School community. Recent incidents of name-calling and harassment of LGBTQ students and students of color, he said, made the march all the more timely.

About 40 students walk out of Becker High School in Becker, Minn., Monday afternoon.
Kristi Marohn / MPR News
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About 40 students walk out of Becker High School in Becker, Minn., Monday afternoon.

"We really thought it would be appropriate here, especially, to stand up for the Black folks at our school and the students of color. We wanted to stand up for them and also address some things at Becker," Roehl said.

Erin Deering, a sophomore at Becker High School who identifies as queer, said she has experienced some of that harassment.

"I can't understand how Black people feel, but I can understand how it feels to be a minority in Becker," she said. "And so I wanted to come and show my support and stand in solidarity with them and hopefully make a change."

Becker Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt sent a letter Sunday night to district staff and students' families, saying racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism or discrimination against any student has no place in any school, and the district does not tolerate the unfair treatment of any student or staff member.

Erin Deering, left, and Anna Pancoast, both students at Becker High School, participated in Monday's walkout. Pancoast, a senior, helped organize it. "I was just trying to figure out ways I can help as a white straight woman living in a predominantly white community, and one that has a lot of bias towards people of color," she said.
Kristi Marohn / MPR News
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Erin Deering, left, and Anna Pancoast, both students at Becker High School, participated in Monday's walkout. Pancoast, a senior, helped organize it. "I was just trying to figure out ways I can help as a white straight woman living in a predominantly white community, and one that has a lot of bias towards people of color," she said.

But Sarah Colford, chair of the district's American Indian Parent Advisory Council, said she's heard of students who feel targeted and unsafe due to the stances of the community and their peers.

"It was really hard to hear the experiences of some of the students that are still struggling with some of the racial biases that I experienced when I moved here in 1995," she said. "And I really thought that we were in a better place."

"More and more kids stepping up"

In St. James, a small town nearly two hours southwest of the Twin Cities, about 60 students gathered inside their high school's event center. They observed a moment of silence for people affected by racist violence. Some students took turns sharing their own stories of encounters with racism.

Senior Gabriela Trapero said she learned about the statewide call for action through a classmate on social media.

Armya Williams, 17, one of the student organizers, speaks during a walkout at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn., where students spoke, sang and did trauma-healing exercises together on the football field on Monday.
Nicole Neri / MPR News
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Armya Williams, 17, one of the student organizers, speaks during a walkout at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn., where students spoke, sang and did trauma-healing exercises together on the football field on Monday.

"I'm just trying to make sure that the families know that we support them and that we are so sorry for their loss," she said. "I want everybody here to at least want to walk out today knowing that they can advocate for their families and make sure that they get the justice that they deserve and make sure that it doesn't happen again."

Nick Brey, 18 and a senior at St. James, sent emails to all the members of their school's social justice club that let them know about the walkout. Just last summer, Brey and Trapero were involved in organizing a community demonstration after the killing of George Floyd. Since then, they've established a social justice club on their campus.

Students talk to each other during a walkout at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn., Monday.
Nicole Neri / MPR News
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Students talk to each other during a walkout at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn., Monday.

On Monday morning, the student leaders met with their superintendent and activities director to talk about the planned event, where Brey said administrators were "supportive of it," and that students were finding their place in the ongoing racial justice movement.

"More and more kids are finally starting to see the problems that are going on in our society," Brey said. "More and more of them are stepping up and taking charge and fixing these problems. So it's kind of like a superhero moment."

"I care about my future"

In St. Anthony — a city in both Ramsey and Hennepin counties that just four years ago was at the center of another police officer's trial — students gathered outside in a parking lot, chanting, holding signs and listening to their classmates address the crowd.

Semhar Solomon, a 17-year-old senior, says she was moved to organize the demonstration after getting involved in protests last summer over Floyd's killing. Now, with more news about more police killings, she says she wants to do what she can, in her part of the world, to make a difference.

Students hold each other and listen to speakers during a walkout at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn., Monday.
Nicole Neri / MPR News
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Students hold each other and listen to speakers during a walkout at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn., Monday.

"The walkout's happening because we've already asked, we've already done the nice things, the like sitting down and talking and being told, 'We see you, we hear you.' But sometimes taking it into your own hands is the only way we'll see justice."

Back in Oakdale, students hurried to catch their rides home when their walkout ended. Organizer Armya Williams said it's been a hard week of terrible news about police killing young people of color like Adam Toledo in Chicago and Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center.

Samiyyah Wadley, 16, is greeted by classmates after singing during a walkout at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn.
Nicole Neri / MPR News
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Samiyyah Wadley, 16, is greeted by classmates after singing during a walkout at Tartan High School in Oakdale, Minn.

"I care about my future and I do not want to see it go downhill. I do not want to see somebody close to my age dying," she said. "It's crazy because I just found out a 13-year-old boy died because of police brutality. Got shot. And that kind of hit home because I'm like, 'That could be my brother. That could be my cousin.' These boys have futures. And they just took all that from them."

Solomon said she's encouraged by the legions of classmates who came out to declare that Black lives like hers matter.

And she hopes the walkouts will remind other students that, if they're feeling sad, scared or concerned — they're not alone. There are other people — like her, and like her classmates, she said — who care.

MPR News reporter Hannah Yang and Kirsti Marohn contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 MPR News. To see more, visit MPR News.