Hate-Crime Symbol Use Is Under SMMUSD Scrutiny
• District Wrestles with Its Policies Concerning Student Harassment and Civil Rights
BY KAYLA BROWN
If a black youth enters a room and sees a suspended noose, and is then "chained" to his locker, is this a teen prank or a racially tinged incident that requires legal action? That question is now being addressed by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and local law enforcement agencies.
On May 4, a male African-American Santa Monica High School student went into the wrestling practice room for a typical workout. The 17-year-old reported that, as he entered the room, he saw a hanging noose over a practice dummy, as if to simulate a hanging or a lynching.
The student allegedly was then attacked from behind by two male students, and forcibly attached to his locker by a lock looped through his belt. Reports then describe the two students chanting, "Slave for sale," as they departed the locker room.
The incident was reported to the school district administration that night. But it wasn't until several weeks later that a complete stranger informed Victoria Gray, the mother of the victim who is not named because of his age, about the incident.
According to SMMUSD outgoing Superintendent Tim Cuneo, although other wrestling parents were informed of the event, Gray was not notified.
Cuneo offered a public apology to her at the school board meeting on June 16, and, at that meeting, Cuneo assured Gray that he would "take every step to make sure that all students are respected."
Samohi last publicly addressed racial issues in 2005, when over 200 African-American and Latino students were involved in widespread riots on the high school campus.
At that time, critics said the district was ignoring racial tensions, and some school parents and others now are asking if SMMUSD authorities still have a disregard for race-based issues on campus, because the wrestling event was described by officials as an "incident with racial overtones" rather than a hate crime.
A number of residents, along with Gray, at the June 16 meeting, requested that a mass email be sent to all Samohi parents and teachers informing them that a racial incident had occurred.
Also requested was the creation of a separate document in the student handbook for Samohi students to review and sign that explains racial discrimination, and clarifies the punishment for students involved in actions of that nature.
Gray was adamant about the district's lack of communication with her in regard to the occurrence. She requested that a formal policy be established that ensures parents would be informed immediately in the event that their children are the subjects of any form of harassment.
Final concluding resolutions from this meeting were seemingly unclear until the following week, when outgoing Samohi principal Hugo Pedroza sent out the mass email that described a racial incident, but did not give specific details about what occurred.
The email asserted that the school district openly reprimands students who "degrade an individual on the basis of his or her race, ethnicity, culture, heritage, sexual orientation, physical or mental attributes, religious beliefs or practices" and declares that it "will not be tolerated."
The two male students involved were slated to be punished under this policy, which may result in suspension, counseling, and participation in anti-bullying and anti-hazing workshops for incoming freshmen at Samohi.
Some parents questioned whether this punishment was sufficient, considering that California law bans the public display of nooses, as well as swastikas, and burning crosses. Such displays are punishable up to a year in jail and a fine up to $5000 (California Penal Code, Section 11411).
In light of the law, when asked at the June 16 meeting why the administrators from Samohi thought that law enforcement should not be involved in this crime, Cuneo stated, "I can't answer that, I don't know."
Since the May 4 incident, Samohi has provided counseling sessions for the students who witnessed the event. The separate form requested by Gray will not be implemented due to Cuneo's determination that it is not necessary in light of the harassment policy currently in the handbook.
Currently, a section of the student handbook does review the consequences of hate-motivated behavior. Yet Gray and other concerned individuals express the need for a significant separate sheet highlighting this policy.
The wrestling room incident has riled many in the community and attracted the attention of civil rights activists, including Darrell Goode, president of the NAACP for Santa Monica and Venice. Goode encourages the involvement of the community, stating, "When behavior comes out this darkly, it requires a high level of awareness and reaction to it."
In order to draw attention to the event, Goode believes a full investigation is in order.
Those at the crowded SSMUSD meeting had expressed interest in whether the matter would be brought up again at the June 30 board meeting. According to representatives from the district office, this matter was originally not slated for the agenda.
Nevertheless, the incident was brought up for discussion and review on June 30. Jose Escarce, president of the board of education, expressed his concern and said, "Putting this item on the agenda is a manifestation of how seriously we take this incident, and how concerned we are about it."
According to Escarce, "Very few, if any, [school] boards would put an item like this on the agenda for public discussion," but he added it is "important for the community to know what we plan to do and to hold us accountable."
Representatives from several racial equality organizations were present at that session, including Goode, Melvin Snell of the Los Angeles Humanity Group Foundation, and Najee Ali of Project Islamic H.O.P.E.
Ali told the board that the school district's handling of the incident is a "shameless cover-up of a vicious and racist hate crime."
Holding a noose in his hand, Ali explained to the board that any display of a noose in the state of California is a hate crime, which is why he was one of the primary individuals who brought the case to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Ali told the Malibu Surfside News that he hopes to make noise within the community and "raise some issues that are pertinent to the investigation."
Ali added there are many questions that still remain unanswered, such as, "Why did the incident take so long to be uncovered, why was the mother never notified, and why was law enforcement not contacted?"
As he sees it, "A law was broken, and a crime was committed." Ali chastised district officials involved for attempting to sweep this event under the carpet, and trying to water down the racist acts that occurred. Ali noted that it "was not [the school district's] decision to make… that's why we have law enforcement officials."
In response to the community outcry at the June 30 meeting, the board developed three goals that they plan to put into action immediately. The board plans to "support the students adversely affected by the incident, minimize chances that similar incidents occur in the future, and if they do they are dealt with appropriately."
The board says there will be revisions in curriculum, training for teachers, and the modification of policies to be consistent and a reflection of the expectations and values of the district.
Since the June 30 meeting, media coverage of the incident has increased, forcing the district to put out a press release reiterating their intentions and plans of action.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Santa Monica Police Department have announced their ongoing investigation of the incident.
That the incident may be overblown is the assertion in a letter sent by Robert Forster, a volunteer coach for the Samohi wrestling team, to The News.
Forster wrote, "The rope was tied in a noose-like knot...just as a way to try to set up a dummy for practice" and the attachment of the victim to his locker was "a prank."
He said, "That nearly every student on the team, regardless of race, has been the subject of this prank at some point."
According to Forster, this event is a misunderstanding that "can be misconstrued by outsiders as racially motivated."
Ali specifically rebuked Forster's statements, stating they seem "very rehearsed," and that he thinks the coach is "lying through his teeth."
Ali encouraged Forster to "try and be an adult and be transparent…choose to not downplay the incident and tell one lie after another."
Observers say there are residents throughout the SMMUSD who think the awareness of this incident will wake up the community and enable people to realize that, as much as some might wish to downplay the possibility of racism, it is present.
The new SMMUSD Superintendent Sandra Lyon, as well as the new principal of Samohi, Laurel Fretz, are expected to monitor the progress.
These same individuals within the community have made it clear that they intend to monitor the district's racial sensitivity and parent inclusion initiatives.
Despite the school year having ended, the district still plans to proceed with the innovative policies and necessary recovery sessions throughout the summer.
The wrestling room incident also raises questions about district administration comments for recent Malibu Surfside News articles about bullying and diversity intolerance in the district schools.
The consensus of officials in Santa Monica and Malibu was there are no major issues that need to be addressed.
Some local parents and students, however, appear to think that there are problems. The News has received a number of emails related to issues of ethnic insensitivity, but the senders are reluctant to speak out publicly because they are concerned that their children will be penalized in the classroom for their parent's views.
The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and the Santa Monica Police Department investigation of the incident is ongoing. The results will be made public.
For current information and updates on the SMMUSD progress on these issues, one can visit www.smmusd.org.