'Acts of Hate' at HS Sporting Events Inspire Dialogue

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Copyright 2017 Ventura County Star
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Ventura County Star (California)


Images of students holding ropes tied around the necks of black men. Shouts of "Build a wall!" at a volleyball game. Baseball team jerseys altered to spell out a slur against African-Americans.

Recent hate incidents at Ventura County high schools have raised fear, anger and anxiety among students, parents and teachers and pushed school leaders into crisis intervention mode.

The incidents are playing out against a backdrop of threats to Jewish community centers around the country and hate acts against Muslim centers and mosques.

Although it's unclear if there has been an increase in hate incidents in schools, the Southern Poverty Law Center found in an online survey after the November election that verbal harassment, the use of slurs and derogatory language and incidents involving swastikas, Nazi salutes and Confederate flags are on the upswing throughout the country.

Some say President Donald Trump's election has emboldened this behavior.

"It's always been there, but people are more comfortable being racist in public because of the political climate, and we're more focused on it because of everything that's going on," said Veronica Valadez, a lecturer in Chicano studies at CSU Channel Islands in Camarillo.

The attention is also sparking some much-needed discussion, she said.

"We can finally talk about it," Valadez said. "Before, there was a lot of denial."

Talking about it is what Nordhoff High School Principal Greg Bayless had in mind when he asked his English and history teachers last week to discuss in their classrooms the historical, social and ethical issues surrounding the use of "the most hurtful, disrespectful and indefensible racial epithet in our language and culture."

The directive came after two junior varsity baseball players altered their jerseys to spell out a racial slur about African-Americans. He told his teachers that if the topic arose in the classroom independently "do not ignore or dismiss it." Nordhoff's student body is 60 percent white, 34 percent Latino and 1.3 percent African-American.

Related: HS Baseball Team's Racial Slur Stunt Nearly Cost Season

"If we do not have a strong empathy muscle well developed, we can't see the world through other people's eyes and we will do things that hurt other people," Bayless said in an interview last week. "So one of our jobs in education is to create the kind of adults we want to live with, and those are the kind of adults who see the world through others' perspectives."

Sarah Scott, a 17-year-old senior at the Ojai high school, said she and her classmates engaged in spirited, inclusive debates during classes last week that opened the door to a better understanding of other views and beliefs.

"I found that there are a lot of different interpretations about why this situation happened, but I think everyone can agree that it's not just Nordhoff, or it's not just Ojai or not just Ventura County," she said. "It's an epidemic in our country and it's an issue with our generation."

The two students who manipulated their jerseys and a third who took a picture and posted it online were removed from the team and head coach Sean Strben resigned, although he wasn't involved in the incident.

Devon Page, 18, a member of the baseball team, said he was confused when he heard what had happened.

"I got angry at the kids who did it and I started talking to them and I told them how disgusted I was with what they did," Page said. "And not only with what they did on a humanities level but also the impact it had on the team. Now we're facing a baseball season being ended because of a humanitarian issue that wasn't even committed by us. And I felt really hurt by that."

Bayless allowed Nordhoff's baseball season to continue after he met with the players and none of them tried to justify or make excuses for their teammates' behavior, he said.

Senior Alexis Garcia, 18, is Latino and drives from Oxnard every day to attend Nordhoff. He said he hasn't experienced any discrimination on campus, but he is grateful the topic is out in the open.

"This incident blew up a lot bigger and a lot quicker than it could have," he said. "But I'm really glad that it did. It's bringing awareness."

Putting the results of those discussions into practice is what Trudy Tuttle Arriaga recommends in her book "Opening Doors," a guide for educators on how to bring "cultural proficiency" into everything they do from holding fundraisers to disciplining students to hiring faculty.

Arriaga, who was superintendent of the Ventura Unified School District for 14 years, is traveling around the country, speaking to school districts about those ideas.

"Throughout the nation, what educators are saying is, 'We need this now more than ever,'" Arriaga said.

She said the campus incidents reflect what children and teenagers are seeing around them.

"On a political, national level, I don't care where you are on the spectrum, you certainly have seen activities that promote acts of hate and acts of violence and disrespectful language," she said. "I can't believe anyone is shocked or surprised this is escalating.

"Yelling things like 'Build a wall!' at a game or taking pictures of themselves with despicable and harmful images - who do they learn their behaviors from? Adults."

The activity at Nordhoff comes after at least one player on Simi Valley High's junior varsity boys volleyball team shouted "Build a wall!" during a varsity match at Pacifica High School in Oxnard.

Trump made building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border a cornerstone of his election campaign and the chant was frequently heard at his rallies.

The Simi Valley High player stopped when the coach intervened, and the superintendent called the head of Pacifica's district the next day to apologize.

"It's a reminder of what students of color deal with on a daily basis," said Superintendent Penny DeLeon of the Oxnard Union High School District. "Our students handled it with grace. It could have exploded, but it didn't."

A majority, 92 percent, of students who attend Pacifica are Latino and many were already stressed by the federal government's move to crack down on immigration, DeLeon said.

"There was a rash of anxiety within the community," she said.

"We had forums on campus where students were able to say how they felt. They were able to have open conversations about what was happening in the community and in the nation."

Dean May, the principal of Simi Valley High School, which is 57 percent white, 29 percent Latino and 0.8 percent African-American, said teachers at his school often take time in their lesson planning to "celebrate cultural differences and teach students that this is one of the strengths of our nation."

"As leaders on campus, educators should always take advantage of teachable moments to point out to students when they are being insensitive to others, and to help them correct their mistakes along the way," May said by email.

A similar incident occurred four years ago when several students from Camarillo High School chanted "USA, USA" during a championship basketball game against arch rival Rio Mesa High School. Some witnesses said the students, who were sporting American flag bandannas, pointed to Rio Mesa fans. At that time, the enrollment at Rio Mesa was 67 percent Latino; Camarillo High's was 46 percent white and 38 percent Latino.

The yell in Oxnard follows a January incident at Buena High School in Ventura, where two students sent a tweet showing themselves holding ropes around the necks of two black men. One of the students in the digitally altered photos wore a T-shirt displaying a Confederate flag. Buena is 51 percent Latino, 40 percent white and 1.3 percent African-American.

Since then, the district has been working with community groups to develop programs and bring speakers to schools to teach students about "how everyone in our community has importance and all are included," Interim Superintendent Joe Richards Jr. said.

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March 28, 2017


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