Public outrage and shock was evident at the June 30 Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District School Board meeting as almost 40 people spoke regarding an alleged racial at incident Santa Monica High School (SaMoHi) May 4. Their input was part of a board discussion on what steps the district should take to avoid similar incidents in the future.
On June 21, the Santa Monica Police Department began investigating a hate crime regarding incident in which a black wrester walked in and found a brown wrestling dummy that was suspended with a rope around its neck. The wrestler was then strapped to a locker with a chain from a belt loop on his pants by his teammates. His teammates also allegedly made racial remarks which included “slave for sale.”
While holding a noose Najee Ali, the Director of Project of H.O.P.E., told the board there is no doubt that a hate crime was committed. He said terrorizing anyone with a noose is a criminal offense in the state of California.
“Superintendent (Tim) Cuneo and school officials’ delay in reporting a hate crime and not notifying the mother of the victim, Victoria Gray, was part of the shameless cover-up of this vicious, racist attack and hate crime,” said Ali. “We now know the police were never called by district officials and they collected cell phones and deleted photos of the incident. We believe the school’s disciplinary action against the students which was a three-day suspension is also inadequate.”
“This was a hate crime by any textbook standard,” said Dawn Smith, a SaMohHi student. “If someone hangs a noose on a mannequin they are saying to Afro-American students this is you. It’s been proven Afro-Americans were hung in the 50’s, 60’s and it’s still happening today.”
Debbie Mulvaney, president of SaMoHi’s Parent Teachers Students Association, expressed her concern “about the lack of communication with regard to this incident.” She then emphasized, “no one should be getting their facts from the newspapers instead of from the district.”
Another SaMoHi, parent Lee Jones, asked the board “Why are the police here tonight [referring to the strong police presence in the packed school board chambers] and they were not at SaMoHi on May 4?”
The wrestling team’s volunteer coach Robert Forster had another view of the incident. He said that he had spoken to all the students involved and “there has been a rush to judgment.” He then explained that “being locked to the locker was a prank not hazing. It’s a funny thing athletes think are funny in the locker room.” He also pointed that the ropes holding up the practice dummy were not tied in any way around it to resemble a noose.
Louis Yasono, a current member of the team, said that the incident “was just a prank between friends. People aren’t trying to find out what really happened.”
The board also heard from several past captains of the wrestling team. One of them stressed, “the kids in the room are kids and kids make mistakes.”
Superintendent Tim Cuneo told the students’ mother at the June 16 School Board meeting “it was our failure not to inform you” after she requested the board to create a policy that ensures parents will be informed if their student is harassed. She did not find out about what happened to her son until five weeks after the incident when another parent told her.
After hearing the input Board member Oscar de la Torre stated, “a cover-up is never good. How can we solve a problem if its never discussed? I can’t be on a school board that allows a cover-up.”
“We must take this painful episode and turn it into a learning experience,” stressed Board member Laurie Lieberman.
The board will now wait for the results of the SMPD’s investigation into the incident between the students, as well as the investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Santa Monica’s police department has asked the sheriff’s office to step in and investigate the administrators from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest, citing the close relationship between the district and the City of Santa Monica. During Santa Monica police’s recent investigation of a hate crime at Santa Monica High School, officers were informed of allegations that school administrators had handled the incident unlawfully. “This referral is routinely made to avoid any appearance of a potential conflict of interest; it does not signify any determination by the police department that any administrator acted unlawfully,” notes a statement from the SMPD.
Board President Jose Escarce explained that the board would then build on the report from law enforcement. The board took no formal action because the issue was agendized as a discussion item.