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Police Investigate Racial Harassment Incident at Samohi
By Ann K. Williams and Jason Islas
June 24, 2011 – Police are investigating an incident of racial harassment at Santa Monica High School that occurred in May.
The victim, an African-American high school student, came into the Santa Monica Police Department offices early Tuesday evening and filed a police report, Sergeant Richard Lewis told The Lookout Thursday.
An officer has been assigned to the investigation, which is ongoing, said Lewis. Interviews are in process, he said.
Virginia Gray said her son, the victim, was cornered in the locker room by two of his wrestling teammates and locked to a locker while the students allegedly shouted “Slave for sale!” Also, the students posed a human-sized dummy used by the team for practice with a noose.
District officials say that the young man was indeed locked to a locker and a “dummy bag” with a rope noose was displayed in the locker room on May 4. While they received reports of the racial slur “Slave for sale,” school administrators say that the victim told them he didn't hear it, and they can't verify whether or not it was actually said.
Administrators began their investigation the next day, school officials say. The two students who bullied the victim were suspended and received sensitivity and diversity counseling. All athletic teams, including the wrestling team met to engage in a dialogue about the incident and about acceptable behavior.
“Kids don't see the implications of what this could lead to,” Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Superintendent Tim Cuneo told The Lookout Thursday. “They don't have a historical perspective.”
While the offending students may have seen their actions as a “prank,” Cuneo said that the district needs to see the incident as a spur to teach racial and ethnic sensitivity from the administration on down.
“Behavior or statements that degrade an individual on the basis of his or her race, ethnicity, culture, heritage , gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental attributes, religious beliefs or practices is not tolerated,” he said.
“I'm not trying to diminish this,” said Cuneo, “but it's one incident, not a trend.”
“We take this thing very seriously,” he added. “This incident serves as a reminder that we need to be ever vigilant in monitoring student name-calling, bullying and hate-motivated behavior.”
Cuneo has called for sensitivity training for all staff and a review of school policies and curriculum to make sure that the district is doing all it can to promote tolerance and harmony.
Photos of the dummy with the noose were deleted from cell phones confiscated by school administrators to make sure they didn't wind up on the internet, Gray said Cuneo told her at a meeting at SMMUSD offices.
Gray told The Lookout Thursday that her meeting with Cuneo took place on June 14, and was also attended by School Board Member Oscar de la Torre and local NAACP President Darryl Goode.
Gray's son didn't report the incident after it happened, but a female student, also on the wrestling team, did.
Gray found out from another parent what had been done to her son nearly a month after it happened.
She said he told her he didn't want to make too big a deal out of it, because he said H House Principal Leslie Wells told him if he did, he'd be putting the wrestling program in jeopardy.
Cuneo told The Lookout that all of the teams met together after the incident, and – although he emphasized he wasn't actually at the meeting of the teams – he understood the students were told that their actions had implications they may not have thought about.
Gray spoke out at a school board meeting last week, and Cuneo apologized, saying that not informing her was “our failure.”
In addition to the police investigation, Samohi parent Michael Chwe has lodged a complaint with the Regional Civil Rights Director of the United States Department of Education.
In his letter to the Office of Civil Rights, a copy of which was received by The Lookout Thursday, he said that the actions of SMMUSD administrators “deny the civil rights of its students.”
Chwe faulted them for destroying the photos of the noose and failing to notify police of a hate crime.
The use of a noose as a symbol of terror is against California law, he said.
“In other words, the two boys committed a crime. There is no question of interpretation about what the noose 'means' or whether the noose constituted a hate crime,” wrote Chwe.
Cuneo declined to comment on Chwe's letter.
Cuneo will step down from his position at the end of the month, when Sandra Lyon assumes the position of SMMUSD Superintendent.
Samohi Principal Hugo Pedroza is leaving the district to take the position of Assistant Superintendent at the Lompoc school district.
“Kids don't see the implications of what this could lead to. They don't have a historical perspective.” Tim Cuneo
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