Stressing that racial incidents like the one that involved members of the Santa Monica High School wrestling team in May will not be tolerated, school district officials pledged to stay committed to measures implemented to discourage such behavior.
Months after the alleged racial discrimination incident occurred, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education received an update Sept. 22 on several recommended directives to staff in response to the Samohi incident.
According to statements made to police, the incident occurred in early May when an African-American student was locked to a locker through his belt loop by wrestling teammates and some racist comments were allegedly made. The boy also reportedly saw a brown wrestling dummy with a noose around the neck area in the practice room.
The boy’s mother has said she was not notified by the district and learned about the event weeks later from another parent. At a school board meeting in late June, some speakers were quick to allege that a hate crime took place and assailed the district’s handling of the event.
While the police department is conducting an investigation of the hate crime allegations, some school board members said at the Sept. 22 meeting that they wanted to be sure to acknowledge that the event was not bullying among teammates but one that was race-related.
“I think we have to put it out front that this did occur,” Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez said.
Board President Jose Escarce said, “This was a racial incident and I think everyone acknowledges that.”
The district’s response and recommended actions to staff are intended to change the culture that can lead to such incidents and make sure they are addressed properly if they do occur, Escarce said.
“Our goal here in all of this is really to minimize the chances that anything like this will happen, and to make sure it’s handled appropriately and correctly if it ever happens,” he said.
Superintendent Sandra Lyon, who took over after the incident had occurred, said the handling of the response measures has been a top priority.
“The reality is that we will have things happen, but the more that is done to lay a solid foundation the better our response will be,” Lyon said.
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.
In a presentation to the board Sept. 22, district official Peggy Harris gave an overview of the various actions taken in regards to the board’s directives, as well as a number of steps Santa Monica High administration has taken on its own.
According to the new Samohi principal, the high school has worked to increase the awareness of and responsiveness to bullying and racial insensitivity on campus. The leadership team has implemented different actions for staff, parents and students. Some of those actions include working with head coaches to revise handbooks on what the expectations are, and in regards to students, discussing the expectations of behavior and accountability, Harris said.
Speaking on the board’s directive for reexamining the curriculum, Harris said staff reviewed the policies for the freshman seminar, the criteria for selecting culturally appropriate reading materials and implemented recommendations for the students of color task force. One program that has helped students of color develop academic identities was the development of the African-American Mentor Society, she told the board.
“It isn’t just about responding to a single incident; the work is about transforming the culture so that we are engaging… and understanding and empowering a wider group of students,” Harris said.
Harris said she is encouraged by the amount of people who want to take part in the process.
“It’s not just responding to this incident, it’s really transforming what we do and being in it for the long haul,” she said.
Barry Snell, a former board president, said he was pleased with the measures staff have implemented, but noted the importance of addressing the race issue in the curriculum.
“If we don’t deal with the issue of racism then we won’t be able to educate our youth,” he said.
Board Member Oscar de la Torre noted he would like for the board to receive an annual report on how the measures have been implemented and the progress that was made.