One year later

The Owatonna High School has made many changes regarding issues of race at the school.

Designed by Magnet Staff

The Owatonna High School has made many changes regarding issues of race at the school.

By Magnet Feature Staff, Owatonna High School

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a three-part series about the changes OHS has experienced in the past year since the lockdown on  Feb. 11, 2019. This article is not a comprehensive summary of the whole event; whereas the focus is on administrative action and school-wide changes.

One year ago today, Owatonna High School’s student body was divided. On Feb. 11, 2019, offensive and racist social media posts had spread through social media, leading to tension amongst OHS students. The disruption led the school into lockdown over third period. The problems that led to this day stemmed from a lack of conversations regarding race, ignorance and an absence of an outlet for students’ voices. Since that day, OHS administration, staff and students have come together to become conscious of the environment at OHS, and have worked together to make sure it is one of acceptance, understanding and safety.

When OHS Principal Mr. Kory Kath entered the administration this year, he came in aware of OHS’s February incident. He entered Owatonna High School, along with the returning staff, with goals of developing relationships and listening to students that have either been impacted by Feb. 11 or have not felt respected because they are different. Mr. Kath said, “The greatest thing that we can do in truly understanding others is by listening to them; listening to their story, listening to their experience, listening to hardships, listening to victories in their hopes and dreams.”

Intentional conversations with OHS Staff


For OHS staff members, the students have always been the priority. The staff’s main concern is that all students are feeling respected in and out of the classrooms. The significant changes made at OHS can be directed towards the staff, as they have made it their goal to make sure students are being heard. The daily connections and relationships staff have made with their students has been an additional outlet for students to go to regarding issues they may have at the school.

One of the first steps in ensuring that students have a safe and open environment at school was through the staff members. The staff members have developed the way they approach conversations about race in their classes and curriculum. They have been intentionally engaging and openly talking about race to develop an understanding of others with differences throughout the student body. OHS staff members are intentionally isolating the topic of race, to ensure that it is addressed firstly in the educational system. Staff members are additionally opening up to students of color, by checking in with them and making an effort to learn more about how they are feeling about certain topics. Staff members have also been trained to handle and report instances of issues regarding race discrimination.

Another way to hear student voices


In the past, many students felt that their concerns may not have been heard which has contributed to the issues of race at OHS. To create more outlets for students to convey their voices, the administration worked with students of color to create discussion groups. These students come together during lunch and talk about their experiences, stories and lives. The meetings are organized by a staff member who has been trained to facilitate these sensitive conversations; however, additional staff will often sit in on these meetings as well to gain more perspective on the students at OHS. OHS English teacher Jeremy Wood said, “I think it’s important for both students and staff to have these difficult discussions together. It’s very valuable as staff to hear students’ perspectives and hear what students are experiencing as far as race and equity in our building because we don’t always see those things in a classroom setting.” The administration wants to listen to the students who have felt lesser because of their race at OHS, and the lunch discussion group is just one of the opportunities that they use to connect with them.

Student leaders took the initiative to make a difference in students by creating the Diversity Inclusion Group, or DIG. There are also opportunities for students to come together to listen to each other. This is a community of student leaders at OHS that have provided an additional outlet for students to open up about their personal experiences and to discuss important initiatives that should be taken regarding inclusion. DIG leader Sado Keyse said, “DIG’s purpose is to make every student feel safe and welcomed at OHS.” This group is open to all, and students are encouraged to attend their meetings to help gain a deeper perspective on differences between individuals.

A new reporting system


The changes implemented at OHS this year have been building an atmosphere of understanding and respect regarding race; however, there are still issues that need to be reported by students. This year, OHS has initiated a student incident reporting system for students, developed with the DIG group. This form is available on the Owatonna High School website for students who have seen or experienced an incident where they or others have not felt respected. This form is a readily accessible way to report any issue at school regarding discrimination or harassment in an efficient way. The self-reporting form is targeting students who may not feel comfortable talking about an instance, as they may choose to remain anonymous on the form. Mr. Kath said, “Oftentimes somebody will come report something, then the next day it shows up on the online reporting, which means that our students are actually coming to us first rather than going on to the online.” Every student has access to this resource, and they are also encouraged to come straight to administration if they are comfortable to do so.

This year, more and more students, both students of color and not, are coming forward to talk about the things they have seen or experienced. Principal Mr. Kory Kath said, “I would almost rather we have more [reported incidences] this year. Why? Because it means that we caught it. Because I’m engaging in it.” The instances reported have led to deeper conversations between students and administrators, which has influenced clearer grounds regarding misunderstandings on offensive comments of race.

Embracing race and culture


The issue of race in OHS’s past has sparked a movement at the school. The concept of preventing conversations of race has converted into embracing it. February is Black History Month, the administration team has worked to create Friday Forums, where a series of activities and discussions take place to honor students’ culture and history. The topics discussed at each Friday Forum vary each week, with the first topic being “The Freedom Riders: A look at the heroes who fought to integrate the interstate busing of the 1960s.” Sophomore Fardouza Farah said, “I think it a great way of informing people about different types of racial differences around the school.” Students are highly encouraged to sign up to learn more about the history and culture of themselves and their peers. The sign up can be found through students’ emails.

One year later, as of Feb. 11, 2020, the Owatonna Senior High school stands on new grounds. OHS is a community where students’ voices are working to be heard, and disrespect is working to be fought against. Principal Mr. Kory Kath said, “Oftentimes, things that are considered negative or tragedies can also inspire people to actually do things and make a difference.” There is still progress throughout the realms of students’ voices and empathy; however, OHS has come a long way in a short time. The issues of race will always remain an issue in society, but the environment that has been built to fight against will also remain a constant that will never leave students’ sides at OHS.

This story was originally published on Magnet on February 11, 2020.