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The race debate continues

Discussion of a Cloquet High School pep rally skit earlier this month that sparked debate over alleged racist attitudes continued at Monday’s Cloquet School Board meeting.

In contrast to the meeting two weeks ago when several parents and community members expressed outrage over the skit and the district’s response, only one audience member addressed the Board on Monday.

Gerard Sordelet Sr. — who served as Local Indian Education Committee (LIEC) chairman from 2009 through last month — told the Board he would like to hold a community-wide event at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in the future, possibly next spring, to talk about racial issues in the community.

“I understand why people got upset, but I hope we can come together and have a dialogue,” Sordelet said. “And we can have a stronger community because of it.”

The skit in question featured a student dressed as a DeLaSalle Islander (the opposing football team) wearing a paper crown/headdress with war paint on his face. The “Islander” attacked the football coach with a swimming pool foam noodle, before being beaten back by the Lumberjack mascot and dragged out of the gymnasium following a dramatic mock fight. Some onlookers thought the Islander was intended to be Native American.

The issue has been covered by media outlets around the state since then, and the LIEC had a guest speaker on the topic last week and even more discussion.

Sordelet had more praise for the district than criticism, however. He pointed to higher graduation rates here for Native American students versus statewide and national averages.

In a followup interview, Tara Graves, director of American Indian Education for Cloquet Public Schools, said she calculated the yearly graduation rate for Native American students in the district at 78 percent for 2012-13 and 82 percent for 2011-12. The Minnesota Department of Education (which uses slightly different methods than Graves) put the four-year Native American graduation rate in Cloquet at 70.4 percent versus a statewide Native American graduation four-year rate of 49 percent.

“We’re doing something right,” Sordelet said, adding that the Cloquet school district has more Native American kids than ever before, approximately 540 students.

“There’s a lot more positive things going on,” he added. “I wouldn’t let this one negative take away all the positives.”

CHS Principal Warren Peterson reported he’d held a 45-minute discussion with his staff about the pep fest skit and reactions to it.

Basically, he said, they discussed what happened and how the school can learn from it and move forward.

“We talked about where we were and where we want to be,” he said.

Later in the meeting, Superintendent Ken Scarbrough gave the first reading of a proposed addition to the CHS extracurricular activity code of conduct.

The new policy refers specifically to opposing schools that use Native American or other indigenous people as mascots or use their cultural symbols as part of the team’s identity. In those cases:

  • only the nicknames and/or symbols that pre-exist on the opposing teams’ uniforms can be displayed;

  • at CHS pep rallies, such teams will be described or characterized by institutional name only, such as DeLaSalle. None of the mascots or symbols can be used.

  • During the competitions, teams will be described and announced using the institution’s name only, not the mascot or symbol.

There will be a second reading of the proposed new policy at the Board’s meeting in December.

In other matters Monday:

  • CHS Principal Warren Peterson presented a chart showing the top northeastern schools according to the MMR ratings, which measure graduation rates, achievement gap reduction, proficiency and student growth. Cloquet not only scored the highest, it was also the school with the highest percentage of ethnic diversity as well as students qualifying for free-and-reduced lunch and the highest percentage of special education services.

  • The Board heard from CHS Assistant Principal Robbi Mondati, who also works with homeless students and their families in the district. Mondati said she is currently working with 32 students who qualify as homeless, compared to 27 at the same time last year.