Following emotionally charged statements from the public and board members, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board called for a review of diversity training measures and other recommended actions in response to an alleged racial discrimination incident at Santa Monica High School.
A crowd of community members, parents and civil rights activists packed the school board meeting June 30 to address an incident involving an African-American student on the Samohi wrestling team and the subsequent response by administrators.
Some speakers were quick to allege that a hate crime took place and assailed the district’s handling of the event, but others argued that there has been a rush to judgement and the issue is not as severe as many believe.
According to statements made to police, the incident occurred in early May when the African-American student was reportedly locked to a locker through his belt loop by wrestling teammates and some racist comments were allegedly made. The boy then reportedly saw a brown wrestling dummy with a noose around the neck area in the practice room.
The boy’s mother, Victoria Gray, has said she was not notified by the district and learned about the event weeks later from another parent. The student reportedly did not tell his mother initially because he did not want to make a big issue out of it.
When speaking on the event that brought a large number of the audience to the meeting, board President Jose Escarce said the incident has caused a tremendous amount of concern in the entire community.
“The Board of Education and everyone of us here share this concern and we take this incident extremely seriously,” he told the audience.
The item was placed on the agenda to let the public know what board members are doing to respond and to hold them accountable for those actions, he said. The board and administrators hope to take steps to support those who were affected by the incident and to use it as a “stepping stone” by minimizing the chances for similar events to occur in the future and ensure that any such incidents would be handled correctly, he said.
Board members approved a series of recommended actions for staff to take to achieve those goals and requested a report on the progress within 60 days.
The district additionally welcomes an ongoing investigation by the Santa Monica Police Department and independent review by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and plans to conduct its own investigation of the matter, Escarce said.
The police department is conducting an investigation of the hate crime allegations, but has referred separate allegations of misconduct by school administrators in the handling of the event to the sheriff’s department, Sgt. Richard Lewis said. The separate case was given to the sheriff’s department to avoid potential conflict of interest due to the city’s relationship with the school district, but the decision does not indicate that police believe administrators acted unlawfully, Lewis noted.
Daryl Goode, president of the Santa Monica-Venice branch of the NAACP, said while the group believes that a racist act did occur at the high school, they are supportive of the recommendations for diversity training for staff because “we need our students to feel safe.”
Some civil rights activists were blunt in decrying the event and alleging there was a racial crime that the administration tried to cover up.
“This act outraged me; it not only affects Santa Monica, it affects the whole world,” said Melvin Snell of the L.A. Humanity Foundation.
“Make no mistake about it, this was a criminal act called a hate crime and it must not go unpunished. It appears to be a cover-up to the fullest.”
Najee Ali, the director of Project Islamic HOPE, held up a noose when explaining why he believed there was a hate crime and said he was very concerned at school officials’ delay in notifying the parent.
“Terrorizing anyone with a noose is a criminal offense,” Ali said. “A crime was committed at that high school according to state law.”
He also referred to reports that students were asked to delete photographs taken during the incident, calling it an obstruction of justice, and said the three-day suspension of the teammates involved was an inadequate punishment.
Other speakers were also critical of how the public had to hear about the situation from outside of administration.
“No one should be getting their facts from a newspaper instead of the district,” said Debbie Mulvaney, PTSA president at Samohi.
But some argued that people who were not present during the incident are rushing to judgement in regards to what happened. Robert Forster, a volunteer coach for the Viking wrestling team and a father of one of the athletes, said he has spoken with all of the athletes involved and there was no evidence of racial discrimination. Forster earlier released a written statement that Samohi wrestlers are not subject to any form of racism.
“The wrestling community is a very tight knit group and historically we have observed only respect and tolerance for color, creed and religion,” Forster wrote.
Through his written statement and comments to the board, he tried to explain the accounts of that day, saying that the incident of the student being locked to the locker is a locker room “prank” that nearly all wrestlers, regardless of race, are subject to during the season.
Following the public testimony, Board Member Oscar de la Torre, a Samohi alum, was at times visibly emotional as he talked about the impacts of racism and recalled how a racial incident was allegedly covered up during his time at the high school.
“The issue of racism in America is real. This is a reality we have to deal with and it’s something that’s painful for an individual to experience,” de la Torre said.
He acknowledged that the “ball was dropped” in the notification process but that the district has the opportunity to do something about it.
“As a parent, I know that Ms. Gray deserved a phone call,” he said.
De la Torre called the situation a teachable moment for the school district but he noted that the community can’t judge the entire wrestling team for a mistake by some and that the district will make sure to follow through on the response.
“We will make sure there is accountability and we won’t let this be swept under the rug,” he told the audience.
Among the steps that the board directed for staff were to reexamine the district’s curriculum regarding diversity and racial and ethnic sensitivity; ensure that staff receive racial and ethnic sensitivity training annually; and examine the district’s policies to ensure they are consistent with the core values expected of students and faculty.