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Racist social media posts spark altercation at Owatonna High School, ending in arrests

Owatonna Police Department: “Not all students were cooperative.”

Owatonna Police Department: “Not all students were cooperative.” Twitter

A shaky video posted to Twitter on Monday shows the Owatonna High School gym swarming with teenagers and law enforcement officers. A crowd of students are pushing toward a door illuminated from above by a red “EXIT” sign. The officers are holding them back.

“Let her see her sister,” a voice off camera shouts. “Let her see her sister – what the fuck?”
Another cry of “What the fuck” is interrupted by the officer grabbing a student by the scruff of the neck and pulling them backward, away from the door, punctuated by a scream.

“Oh my God,” the voice off camera yells – and keeps yelling. The officer grabs another student trying to rush the door – a kid in a navy blue sweatshirt -- and pulls them off to the side, and eventually wrestles them to the ground.

Then the scene descends into chaos, the camera whipping from side to side and students screaming amid brief glances of the kid in the blue sweatshirt lying on the ground.

According to a press release from the Owatonna Police Department, officers responded to reports of a fight at the high school office at about a quarter to noon on Monday. They got backup from the Minnesota State Patrol and the Steele County Sheriff’s Office. When officers arrived, they “observed a large group of students shouting and being disruptive in the commons area and gymnasium.”

The catalyst for the commotion, according to the release and the myriad of angry comments on Twitter, was a series of “racist comments” on Instagram and Snapchat. One of them shows a trio of girls in a car, making funny faces, with the caption, “always love teaching my bitches the best vocab.” It went on to explain that one of them had just said the n-word for the first time in her life.

Another photo showed a student, whose face was off-camera, holding up a middle finger and telling black students “fuck you” for “playing the black card to get us in trouble when y’all can all be the fucking racist [sic] to us.” Again, the student used the n-word.

A third photo showed a student covered in black paint with the caption: “Is this what being a [n-word] feels like?”

In the fourth photo, a white student faces the camera with captions suggesting a new tradition for Black History Month: “[N-word] Friday.”

And so, sometime Monday morning, a verbal altercation began. The specifics of how or when or who instigated the fight haven’t been made public, and the Owatonna Police Department has declined interview requests. Owatonna Public Schools also didn’t respond to interview requests, but spokesperson Shay Baumbach told Fox 9 that the police were called to “de-escalate” the situation.

“For the safety of the students and staff a lockdown was ordered by school staff,” the police’s press release said. That was around half-past noon. The lockdown lasted until around 1:30 p.m. The release went on to say, “Not all students were cooperative.”

That much is clear, based on the videos. Some comments on the video suggested that a student was trying to get to her sister, who had fainted or was having a seizure, and was blocked by the police. The Twitter user @Incognitoameer, who posted video of the fight, commented that her own sister – the kid in the blue sweatshirt – was being “sent to a detention center in… Rochester for allegedly punching a cop.”

“I’m still awaiting footage [of the punch],” she said. She didn’t respond to interview requests.

Releases from the police department do say a juvenile was taken into custody for assaulting a partnering law enforcement officer, along with another kid for obstructing legal process. A third was cited and released for trespassing. The two kids who were arrested were formally charged in Steele County District Court on Tuesday, both for fourth-degree assault of a peace officer. Neither will be named by law enforcement. 

There have been tweets and posts alleging students stabbed or punched one another, but the press release assures that there were no weapons involved in the “disturbance” and that police were “not aware of any physical altercations between students.” All reported altercations before the police showed up were strictly verbal. Paramedics were dispatched to the school that day, but for an unrelated reason, the release said.

After the incident, the district sent a letter to parents assuring them the safety and wellbeing of students and staff was its number-one priority. The letter said an investigation had been initiated into the racist posts this past weekend, and that it would continue until “the issue has been resolved.”

“It’s always disappointing when [social media controversies] bring themselves into school buildings,” Owatonna Schools Superintendent Jeff Elstad told the Owatonna People’s Press. He said he was “very proud” of how staff and students handled the lockdown.

But if there is a general mood circulating on social media in the aftermath, it is not pride. The video of the fight has gotten more than 80,000 views on Twitter, and the response is mostly outrage – that students were being manhandled by cops, that school wasn’t safe, that racist comments like the ones that sparked the incident have been left unaddressed for too long. Others counter that it was the kids’ own fault for not listening to the officers, or even trying to fight them.

The events at Owatonna are still under investigation by the school and the police.

"Persons following the events on social media should be mindful that videos posted to social media sites are a very small snapshot of the events that took place and do not capture a complete picture of the events that occurred," the latest press release from the police says.