On Friday, February 3, when Santa Monica High School students arrived on campus, they found racial epithets that specifically targeted African Americans, symbols of the gangs Santa Monica 13 and Santa Monica 17, and other offensive messages spray-painted in four places on the campus – the administration building, the Seventh and Michigan entrance, the storage facility next to the tennis courts and the north side of Barnum Hall.School officials believe that the offensive graffiti was done sometime between midnight— when the night custodians leave, and 6 a.m.—when the school opens, but do not believe that it was done by students, though they can’t be sure. Throughout the day on Friday, tension between African American and Latino students led to verbal and physical skirmishes, but as House principal Greg Runyon said, “The graffiti didn’t cause the racial tension, it just elevated it. We always have racial tension on campus. We are a mirror image of what’s going on in the community.” Though District employees worked quickly to paint out the graffiti, most Samo students saw what CEO Dr. Ilene Straus called “the ugly and hateful words.” New offensive graffiti appeared throughout the day in several locations that slandered both African Americans and Latinos. The tension on campus reached a climax during the lunch period, when some students stood on tables and demanded to know who wrote the original graffiti, and other students challenged them. The administrators on lunch duty immediately “made their presence felt” by moving close to the confrontational students, according to Runyon, but didn’t step in until they felt the situation was becoming “unsafe.” In an unprecedented immediate response, administrators gathered the antagonists in Barnum Hall for a mediation session that ran until the end of the school day. No student was forced to take part. Only those willing to “talk it out” participated. District and Samo administrators, several House principals and the newly appointed House outreach specialists attended the meeting. “We let them air their issues in a safe environment,” said Runyon. “It was great to see the two groups have a meaningful and respectful dialogue that didn’t dissolve into chaos. It was good for the kids to listen to each other and for the administration to listen to all of the kids.” During the mediation, the students found they had much in common. For example, all of them admitted to not being member of true gangs. In addition, according to H House principal Ruth Esseln, “In the end, all the boys were united in their frustration with the administration. They feel we panic and, in our efforts to intervene and stop fights, actually end up stopping communication.” Runyon believes that though the criticism is valid, intervention is usually necessary: “The students want us to trust them to settle their disputes themselves, but trust has to be earned. Also, we want every student on our campus to feel safe, and when there are students shouting at each other during lunch, things don’t feel too secure.”“In cases like these it is not always crystal clear on how to proceed,” Esseln said, but Samo has already planned several follow-up steps to ease the tension on campus, including meetings between the House outreach specialists and those involved in the conflict, classroom-based discussions, meetings between the House faculty and the student leadership advisory groups (to provide house and school social action opportunities and strategies) and a continual effort to identify additional ways to assist in building the Samo community.On Monday, February 6, students heard the following announcement from A House principal Wendy Wax Gellis on behalf of the Samo administration: “As many of you already know, this past Friday, our buildings and hallways were covered with racially offensive messages. We are deeply offended and feel this does not reflect who we are as a school community. We apologize to students and adults who were outraged and hurt by these horrific actions. What happens to one happens to all at Samohi. The students and staff of our Samohi community will not tolerate hate crimes. We deserve a safe and respectful school. Keep this in mind as you spend time with your friends and people you care about at lunch. Please think about how we can make Samohi a safe and respectful place.”Social Studies teacher Daniel Braunfeld implemented his own plan. On February 3, the day of the crime, he invited his own students and their friends to attend a meeting in his room at lunch to discuss issues of racial tension and hate. Braunfeld and some fellow teachers have spearheaded the scheduling of further discussion groups to be held in his room, for teachers and students. Teachers received flyers reading: “Our community has been torn apart by hate. It’s time to start rebuilding. Join the campus-wide effort to implement a response to hate crimes.” The teachers will meet on Thursday, February 9 at lunchtime, and will plan further ways to address the pertinent issues.In an e-mail addressed to every family in the Samo database, the Samo administration wrote, “Hate crimes are not to be tolerated. When anyone of us experiences an act of hate within our Samohi community, we all experience it. We must work together to maintain a respectful and safe school for all of our community.” Ed note: Ollstein is a senior at Samohi.
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