“You know, we can do better,” Laguna Beach Unified School District Superintendent Jason Viloria said last week during a joint City Council and school board session.
While the annual joint meeting was routine, Viloria’s comment was anything but business as usual as he and the school district grapple with the embarrassment of a racially motivated attack against a student in December.
The attack has forced leaders in Laguna Beach, historically a haven of tolerance for the counter-culture, to re-examine attitudes and practices in the schools and question whether existing safeguards such as anti-bullying rules and athletic codes of conduct are sufficient. The five students punished for lobbing a watermelon and yelling a racial slur at the home of a fellow student are all involved in sports at Laguna Beach High School. They were disciplined under an athletic code of conduct as well as for violating rules banning all students from harassing or bullying others.
And a student produced video that surfaced last week, portraying a kidnapping that some felt showed racial insensitivity, has intensified the pressure on school officials.
The video depicts two masked figures holding baseball bats in a menacing way and kidnapping another person whose head is covered with a pillow case, a scene that evokes Islamic State hostage taking. The video was shown school wide during an advisory period and posted on the LBHS website, but has since been removed. It was apparently intended as a promotion for the winter formal, suggesting consequences for failing to attend, said a teacher. The video production teacher had reviewed the script, but did not preview the final production before it was released, district spokeswoman Leisa Winston said. “This was a lapse in our protocol of reviewing videos prior to airing to the student body and that has since been addressed.”
The video appeared a month after Cathleen Falsani and Maurice Possley complained publicly that their home was targeted for a hate crime because their son, Vasco, is black.
KCAL Channel 9 aired a segment last week that included the student video, and described the kidnapped person as a black student. In an interview with KCAL, Falsani expressed impatience with what she characterized as administrators’ efforts to address racism.
The five students involved served a week-long suspension from school and sports activities, according to parents and the school athletic director. The students were identified from a grocery surveillance video where they are seen buying a watermelon and admitted to investigators their role, Falsani and Possley said in an earlier interview. The suspension is the maximum penalty allowed under the district’s policies for students who engage in harassment or bullying.
Administrators are addressing racism, Viloria pledged, and a first step was to hold lunchtime meetings at the high school between students and representatives from the Orange County Human Relations Council, a quasi-public agency that provides violence and conflict resolution programs in communities countywide.
Yet, over three lunch periods, only a dozen students participated in the talks, which Principal Chris Herzfeld described as “not well attended.”
Since 2013, district records show just one student complaint involving racial discrimination, according to Winston, responding to a Public Records Act request.
Because of student confidentiality rules, school officials would not discuss the specifics. Falsani and Possley say Vasco endured verbal taunting in a class in 2016, which they reported to administrators.
Other parents explained why similar instances may not come to light. The parents say their child experienced multiple traumatizing acts of racial harassment in 2011, which was resolved in part with a legal agreement that prohibited them from discussing the incident.
Two of the five suspended students apologized to their teammates in a school locker room after they were allowed to return to school, said Sheri Morgan, a mother of a student athlete who was present. Morgan said she felt more consequences should be meted out for violating the sports code of conduct, which is signed by athletes and parents.
Winston said the administration and athletic director, “with input from coaches and student athletes,” are evaluating the code.
The police investigation of the incident is under review by the Orange County Probation Department, which will recommend whether criminal charges should be filed, police Sgt. Tim Kleiser said. None of the students involved had yet been charged or arrested. The Indy is not identifying them because they are minors.
During last Tuesday’s meeting, school board member Carol Normandin said she’s seen examples of students themselves stepping in to promote a more tolerant school climate. She described seeing students “check each other,” when a student’s behavior was unkind, by urging their disruptive peer to “stop being goofy; be serious” and “don’t say that.”
It remains to be seen whether school officials can shift the climate on campus. Viloria asked for and received approval to extend a $36,500 contract with the education research company Hanover Research, based in Arlington, Va., to determine the best approach.
“Recent incidents at our high school have identified a need to measure the school culture and climate of our schools,” said a late agenda item added Tuesday, Jan. 24. “To determine the best practices for implementation on school culture and climate, we believe there is a need to conduct a survey to guide appropriate actions moving forward that are going to meet the needs of our students, teachers, and community.”
In addition to other projects already scheduled with Hanover through July, Viloria recommended separate research to identify best practices for school culture and climate.
Afterwards, board President Jan Vickers said Hanover’s survey will provide school leaders information on areas to address to improve the cultural climate. Results are expected by the end of the month or early March, she said.
Administrators will also attend a one-day workshop with Phil Boyte, of Raleigh, N.C., who specializes in helping transform school climate. It’s aim, Viloria said, is “to pull back what we know, and what we don’t know through candid conversations.”
The workshop later this month will include administrators, teacher and classified leaders and other support staff. Topics will include what drives school culture and how to shift it and build a community of trust, Winston said.
The high school’s student leaders also are working on activities and have declared the week beginning Feb. 13 a week of kindness, Herzfeld said. Motivational speaker Keith Hawkins will address students in assemblies Feb. 14, Herzfeld said.
Viloria said he also envisions a district symbol for diversity and started talks with the high school art department for a competition to create such a symbol.
In a district wide statement last week, parents were encouraged to report if their children share information that indicates harassment or bullying. Hate crimes can also be filed with OCHR at (714) 480-6570 or www.ochumanrelations.org.