Santa Monica-Malibu school district to take steps in curbing racial discrimination

Civil rights leaders, parents and students bemoan administrator’s handling of a May 4 racial incident at Santa Monica High School.

By Paul Sisolak / Special to The Malibu Times

Local school board trustees have instructed their staff to take steps to curb racial discrimination among students, following an alleged hate crime that took place two months ago at Santa Monica High School.

Board members of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District announced this weekend that they would be re-examining district curriculum regarding racial diversity, and ensuring that administrators, teachers and staff receive annual racial and ethnic sensitivity training. In addition, the district’s Intercultural District Advisory Committee may be reformed, as well as more outreach will take place to students regarding the May 4 incident, in which two white wrestling team students are accused of chaining a black teammate to a locker at Santa Monica High School.

Last Thursday’s school board meeting was the first time the district formally agendized the issue, which invoked more than three hours of impassioned testimony from civil rights advocates, parents, students and area residents in response to the hazing incident at Samohi. Officials have been criticized for racial insensitivity for not addressing the problem sooner.

The anger, a palpable force in the school district’s meeting chambers, came about during the public comment period, when several black residents recalled traces of slavery in the alleged hate crime.

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“This is a dark shadow over the city,” Melvin Snell, of the Humanity Group Foundation, said. “We need to be enlightened by the officials of the school, why they didn’t take this issue serious. It not only affects Santa Monica, it affects the whole world. Take a moment and imagine yourself chained to a locker, and what your ancestors went through.”

Najee Ali, a spokesman for Project H.O.P.E., approached the podium with rope in hand and recited the severe penal codes related to any crimes involving a noose. He referenced a related incident to the alleged hate crime in which a wrestling dummy was apparently hung by the neck with a noose. Wrestling Coach Robert Forster has denied this and maintains that the dummy was improperly tied to its restraint.

Others, including Samohi alumni, expressed their disappointment over the continued racial discrimination in the area that, they say, has perpetuated for decades.

“We’ve been down this road before and Santa Monica has experienced racism in the worst way,” Laurie Williams, former president of the school’s African American Parents Group, said.

Since the May 4 incident, controversy was stirred further when it was revealed that the victim’s mother, Victoria Gray, was not immediately contacted following the crime. The Los Angeles Police Department has also employed the county sheriff’s department to assist in the investigation. Locals have called both tactics a way of taking the problem too lightly; some have called it a cover-up.

The board’s decision to implement steps to end racism was perhaps influenced by inspired monologues from two of its Latino members, Oscar de la Torre and Maria Leon-Vazquez. De la Torre became choked up after recalling a similar racial incident in 1991, when a letter containing racial epithets against Latinos was circulated on district letterhead.

De la Torre, then 19, was the recent Samohi student body president, and lamented last week that the crime went unsolved. He related the incident to recent events.

“Mrs. Gray deserved a phone call,” he said.

School District budget approved at 11th hour

Deliberation on the hate crime left the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education with only a half hour last week until their legal midnight deadline to discuss and approve its operating budget, which passed unanimously.

A proverbial tightening of the district’s belt, its $114.9 million general fund for the 2011-2012 school year is about $3.2 million less than funding from last year, Janece Maez, the district’s chief financial officer, said.

Maez said the budget takes into account the possibility of mid-year cuts to school districts by the state if an estimated $4 billion in revenues are not realized by legislators. She recommended that the board develop a contingency plan to address this problem, as well as an ongoing, $3.5 million operating deficit within the SMMUSD.

Cuneo says goodbye

The meeting also marked the farewell for retiring Superintendent Tim Cuneo, whose final day working for the district was Thursday.

Board members commended Cuneo for taking the superintendent’s mantle during a time of disconnect between Santa Monica and Malibu.

“At the time we needed somebody who could stabilize the district,” said Board President Jose Escarce. “He [Cuneo] devoted a great amount of time in our community and getting to know it.”

Cuneo also received a proclamation from the City of Malibu from an unlikely presenter, Mayor Pro Tem Laura Zahn Rosenthal, who had previously clashed with Cuneo over the superintendent’s opposition to converting the Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School into a charter facility.

Cuneo’s successor is Sandy Lyon, a longtime educator who recently cemented a solid reputation as the chief leadership officer for the Palmdale School District. Lyon’s first full week for the SMMUSD began on Tuesday.

Paul Sisolak

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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