Eleven-year-old Nashaad Ali, a sixth-grader in Burnsville schools, spoke in support of her fifth-grade teacher, Qorsho Hassan, at a rally in Rosemount Monday. Nashaad told Sahan Journal that Qorsho is "the best teacher in the whole entire world." Credit: Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

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Eighty protesters including teachers, parents, board members of the local teachers union, and students lined the lawn outside the school district office in Rosemount ahead of a school board meeting on the evening of November 16. 

Cars driving down the county road in front of the district office honked in support. Signs written in tidy teacher handwriting proclaimed support for Qorsho Hassan, Minnesota’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, and the first Somali American to win the prestigious honor. The award committee chose Qorsho for her uncanny ability to connect with students and for her attention to racial equity in the classroom. It’s her first year in the Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan district, where she teaches fourth grade at Echo Park Elementary.

“I stand with Qorsho Hassan,” read one protester’s sign. “District 196, do you?” 

“We need to allow Black teachers to do their work,” said Ryan Mokandu, a 2020 Burnsville High School graduate who came to support Qorsho at the rally. “I’m tired of seeing school officials being silent about these issues. They need to speak up.”

So why did this crowd organize a protest to support their star teacher? It’s a complicated story that involves an award-winning children’s book, the state’s largest professional organization of police officers, a social media firestorm, and the Minnesota governor. 

At issue: how a suburban school district that prides itself on its diversity will stand up for a Black educator whose teaching methods have come under fire.

Here’s what happened.

In late October, Qorsho assigned her fourth graders the picture book Something Happened In Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice. The award-winning picture book, written by psychologists with expertise in therapeutic stories, features young characters of different races. Together, they’re trying with their families to process a difficult, all-too-familiar news story: the police killing of a Black man in their community. 

Qorsho read the book with her students in class, which sparked lots of engagement and reflection, she said. She also provided a link to a read-aloud video for the days that students learn at home.

Something Happened In Our Town, published by the children’s book imprint of the American Psychological Association, has received awards from parenting, social studies, and independent publishing groups. The Minnesota Departments of Education and Health both list it on their websites as a resource to help kids talk about racism and trauma.

It wasn’t an unusual choice for Qorsho, who cultivates her classroom as a space where her fourth graders can affirm their identities and talk about anything on their minds. And in a year shaped by a pandemic, the police killing of George Floyd, and civil unrest, there’s plenty on their young minds.

“The book does a really wonderful job of discussing racial injustice in kid terms,” Qorsho said to Sahan Journal in an interview earlier this week. It also helps kids make connections to what happened in the Twin Cities in May, after George Floyd was killed. Her diverse students often don’t have space to discuss their experiences with racism, she said. 

At Echo Park, for every five students, two are white, one is Black, and one is Latino—but only 5 percent of their educators are people of color. A book like Something Happened In Our Town validates them and invites discussion, she said. “Young kids are ready for these conversations. It’s oftentimes adults that are scared and unprepared.”

This is where the situation took a wrong turn. A class parent shared the book assignment with a friend, who’s a police officer in Bloomington. The officer, who is Black, wrote a Facebook post on his personal page expressing his disappointment in the book’s use in District 196. The book, he argued, could teach a young child to fear the police.

His October 29 post was quickly shared more than 200 times on Facebook. It was “immediately politicized and drew comments from people nationwide,” Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan Superintendent Mary Kreger wrote this week to Echo Park families.  

The next day, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, the state’s largest organization representing rank and file police, issued a statement condemning the classroom assignment. The October 30 letter criticized Governor Tim Walz, whose Departments of Education and Health both recommend the award-winning book as a resource on their websites. 

The police association requested that the agencies stop recommending the book. Their statement cited a fourth grade class at Echo Park Elementary, but did not mention Qorsho by name.

“Language in this book leaves the impression unchecked that police officers routinely pull over, arrest, and kill black people without consequence,” said the statement from the police association’s Executive Director Brian Peters. “It says cops are ‘mean to black people’ or ‘shot them because they were black’ or police officers ‘stick up for each other’ to help police officers get away with doing bad things. This book encourages children to fear police officers as unfair, violent, and racist.” 

(A police association spokesperson told Sahan Journal that Peters was unavailable to comment.)

Republican state representatives Ron Kresha (Little Falls), Sondra Erickson (Princeton), and Brian Johnson (Cambridge) weighed in to support the police association’s statement, the Star Tribune reported.

Qorsho called this characterization of the book “distorted.”

“They chose to grab certain sentences to make it look like I was teaching my students to hate cops,” she said. “What I was doing is I was validating my students’ fear of cops that’s real and that I also have. But also making sure that they’re aware that police respond and interact with people differently based on how they look and how they talk. And that needs to be something that we talk about at schools. We need to be aware of the ways that systemic racism affects the kids we teach.”

Though the police association statement didn’t name Qorsho, a right-wing blog with ties to GOP agitators did. “Is Minnesota’s ‘Teacher of the Year’ teaching her students to hate police?” read the headline on the blog, called Deplorable Housewives of the Midwest.

Qorsho says teachers of color feel isolated ‘in a system that doesn’t support them’

Qorsho Hassan smoothed a poster into place decorating her new classroom in September. Posters on the classroom walls show diverse leaders, one of Qorsho’s many culturally relevant learning tools. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Qorsho first heard about the police officer’s Facebook post at the end of a routine meeting with an administrator. He told her the district would let her know about next steps, but didn’t specify what those steps might be. 

Following a public police controversy, it was scary to hear that ambiguity from her boss, she said, “especially for a Black woman.”

The administrator escorted her from the school an hour early that day, which was unnerving, she said. She’s gotten conflicting messages from the district about why that happened.  

District spokesperson Emily Buss said in an email to Sahan Journal the administrator walked Qorsho to her car because she was upset and he wanted to show his support.

But as the reading assignment snowballed into a media controversy, Qorsho said she did not feel supported. 

Instead of defending their teacher and her efforts to help her students process current events, the district distanced itself from her. Another district spokesperson told news organizations that the book was not part of its curriculum, that only one teacher was using it, and that the district would investigate the use of the book further.

“Essentially, they threw me under the bus with their statement,” Qorsho said.

In a joint statement, the state Departments of Education and Health stood by their choice to recommend the book. They noted that it had won multiple awards and was authored by psychologists, and pointed out it was designed to help children process difficult issues. The sentences criticized by the police association were taken out of context, the departments said.

The local teachers union, Dakota County United Educators (DCUE), also defended Qorsho and her teaching methods in an October 31 email sent to members.

“As the leadership team at DCUE, we want to make clear that we unequivocally support the teacher and the teaching of racial inequities, and we condemn the actions of a few who would use this occasion to spread hate, violence and division,” the union’s executive board wrote. 

“Any teacher needs to feel safe and supported while teaching the important lessons of racial justice. We all know equity work is hard, but the reality is that our students are facing these issues every day.”  

After two weeks, the district’s response has been “mum,” Qorsho said Monday. “That tone has been present this entire time from the district: the willingness to be silent, to keep peace instead of really owning the truth and really tackling this issue of racism and being firmly against it.”

In response to a request for comment, a district spokesperson sent Sahan Journal a statement superintendent Kreger sent to Echo Park families and staff on Monday, coinciding with the day of the protest. Her email explains the delay in a response, saying,The district chose not to respond to the post to not further inflame the responses of hate and intolerance that were shared.”

Something Happened in Our Town is not in the District 196 curriculum or elementary classroom libraries, but it can be used appropriately with elementary age children,” Kreger continued. “Anti-racist work must be a critical part of the fabric of our district….This work does not happen overnight, but it does need to move with greater urgency and transparency than ever before.”

Though Qorsho is Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year, she’s a probationary teacher at Echo Park Elementary School because it’s her first year in Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan schools. She lost her job in the Burnsville–Eagan–Savage school district at the end of last year due to budget cuts and a seniority-based layoff policy. 

She’s pledged to use her Teacher of the Year position to advocate for better retention of teachers of color. While more than a third of Minnesota’s students are people of color, only 5 percent of their teachers are.

Increasing the diversity of Minnesota’s educator workforce is more than just hiring teachers of color, she said. It means creating an inclusive environment that supports teachers of color, honors the fresh perspectives they bring, and responds to criticism. Instead, while teachers of color provide feedback, she said, it often goes unheeded. 

“We share our willingness to be courageous no matter what,” she said. “But we’re often alone and isolated in school buildings. And that in itself does not make teachers of color want to stay in a system that doesn’t support them.”

‘Miss Qorsho deserves better’

Nashaad Ali, an 11-year-old sixth grade student in Burnsville schools, came to the rally in support of her former teacher, “the best teacher in the whole entire world,” she told Sahan Journal.

Rally organizers handed Nashaad the megaphone. “Miss Qorsho was a great teacher,” she said. “She helped her students when they needed help and she would do anything to help us. Even if they were white, Black, or any skin color, she would help them. And if there was anything going wrong and students were feeling down, she would help them. And if there was anyone being bullied or feeling bad, she would help them and try to figure out a way to do anything to help them.”

Nashaad concluded, “That’s why Miss Qorsho deserves better than what she’s dealing with right now.” The crowd cheered.

Early in the protest, Mary Kreger, the superintendent, emerged from the district office to address the crowd. “We’re on the same page,” she told them. “I’m glad you’re out here because together we can make this better.”

But the protesters did not sound convinced.

“Why did you not make a public comment in support of Black families and parents and students and teachers?” asked Anna Williams, a co-founder of the parent-led group that helped organize the protest. “I have been trying to tell you what our diverse population needs. You have not listened.”

Barbara Theobald, a math and literacy interventionist who teaches across the hall from Qorsho at Echo Park Elementary, said she was “amazed” at her teaching. “I am always popping my head up to see because she’s always including all people,” Theobald said. “She shows videos about Native Americans. She shows videos about Latinos. She shows videos about African Americans, Black people. She includes everybody. I wish that I had had a fourth-grade teacher like Qorsho.”

Qorsho stepped up to the megaphone. “This means a lot to me and I know it means a lot to the community at Echo Park,” she said. “I’m here because you all are here and I’m proud to stand next to you. But I’m also here because this is more than just a book. This is more than how I teach. This is about how anti-racism needs to be a part of our schools.”

The book shouldn’t be a controversy, she added. “This book shows multiple perspectives,” she said. “I teach multiple perspectives. There are multiple perspectives in my classroom. We need to honor that. We need to be ready to have these conversations.”

Rebecca Gierok, who has run twice for school board and has a son in Qorsho’s class, took the megaphone to defend her son’s teacher. “I can tell you that he did not learn to fear the police as a result of hearing this story,” she said. “He has learned love from Miss Qorsho. He has learned kindness from Miss Qorsho. He has not learned fear.”

At the end of the rally, as protesters left their signs adorning the district office, 11-year-old Nashaad came over to her favorite teacher.

“Nobody’s listening to us Black people because we’re trying to figure out ways to make things better,” she said. “It’s kind of like bullying but with grown-ups.”

“They’re silencing us, right?” Qorsho said. “They’re not allowing us to speak.”

“They’re not allowing us to speak the ways we speak,” Nashaad agreed. “Just because we’re Black doesn’t mean we’re not the same. We are all the same no matter what color you are. You’re a human. God created you. We’re all the same!”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.