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Feds order Red Wing School District to address civil rights complaints

RED WING, Minn. - When Red Wing School Board members agreed to publish a statement last year addressing offensive behavior, it appeared the infamous Wangster Day incident was behind them. Federal officials decided last month that it's not.

The district and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights reached a 13-point agreement placing the district under a two-year action plan to address civil rights issues at Red Wing High School.

The plan - a direct response to an unsanctioned 2009 homecoming stunt where dozens of white students came to school dressed in hip-hop attire - calls on the district to provide periodic reports through the 2011-12 school year documenting steps it has taken to "avert the formation of, or to address the existence of a racially hostile environment."

Red Wing native and former University of Wisconsin-River Falls Chief Diversity Officer Craig Morris said OCR's involvement at a high school is uncommon.

"For a school district like the Red Wing district to be involved - it's pretty rare," Morris said.

Members of Red Wing's black community brought the issue to light last year at a School Board meeting, saying the staged event was a mockery of black culture. Red Wing High School Principal Beth Borgen told board members that the event had also gone under the name Wigger Day and had been staged in previous years.

"It was wrong what they did," Red Wing resident Maxine Pruitt said Tuesday. "The Office of Civil Rights agreed with me."

She filed the complaint with OCR, which kicked off a 10-month investigation into the district. The agreement was finalized Aug. 26 and signed by Red Wing Supt. Stan Slessor.

As part of the agreement, the district must allow Office of Civil Rights officials to visit the district and monitor the agreement through interviews with student and staff.

Other elements of the agreement require the district to update its harassment policy, monitor anti-harassment efforts, form a working group to address its anti-harassment program, and to provide black students with a forum to discuss racial issues, along with a clear pathway for logging any related complaints.

The district also must issue statements addressing intolerance - including a statement to be issued the week before homecoming which is Oct. 1 -- "and will specifically note the applicability of all policies governing racial harassment to activities related to homecoming week."

"They've got them under a microscope," Pruitt said.

She took action against the district after her daughter, a 2010 Red Wing High School graduate, told her about the incident last year.

Though the School Board addressed Pruitt's concerns last year, she said it didn't go far enough. She had sought an apology to the school's black students.

"They did everything but the public apology," she said.

Slessor said he thinks the agreement can mend wounds left by the incident.

"I think it's healthy. I think it's a positive," he said.

Mike Longaecker is a reporter at the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.