The parents of a 17-year-old Laguna Beach High School student say he and their home were the target of a hate crime because their son is black.
Five fellow student athletes, chanting their son’s name in unison, hurled a watermelon at their front door and shouted a racial epithet before fleeing in a truck, according to Cathleen Falsani and Maurice Possley, who reported the incident that occurred two days after Christmas to police.
The chanting, which they say they learned of from police, had the tenor “of a lynch mob,” said Falsani.
“There was no doubt in my mind what the intent was,” Possley said. “It was an act of hate.” Watermelons serve as a powerful cultural stereotype used to denigrate black people.
From her own experience, Falsani knows this attack is far from the prevailing culture of Laguna. She called on the community to recognize the painful experience they’ve endured as “a teachable moment” and to halt similar corrosive behavior that undermines the town’s reputation for embracing diversity in sexual orientation, religion and ethnicity. “To hide this, to slink away, to allow us or our son to be intimidated, is wrong,” said Falsani. “To pretend it’s not happening here is delusional and lets it grow and fester.”
In the absence of any known clash between her son and the boys involved, Falsani speculates her family became the target of an unprovoked hate crime due in part because of the national zeitgeist where authority figures have been using language that is mocking, hateful and disrespectful.
The five boys involved in the incident were all interviewed by a juvenile investigator at school this past Monday, said police Sgt. Tim Kleiser. The matter is still under investigation as a criminal violation and has yet to be presented to the district attorney, responsible for filing specific charges, Kleiser said.
In the aftermath of the Nov. 8 election, reports of hate crimes spiked nationwide. Laguna has not seen a similar surge, Kleiser said, with the exception of a mailed letter of harassment to a local gay couple in November.
Whether the boys involved will also face discipline from school officials isn’t clear as the incident took place off campus and during the winter break. School officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Falsani and Possley, who are both journalists, met their future son Vasco on a trip in Malawi in 2007. The orphaned boy, then 7, was living on the streets and suffering from a congenital heart defect. They brought him to Chicago where he underwent surgery, and relocated to Laguna Beach because of ties with friends who are residents. “This town embraced him,” Falsani said. “That has been our experience the entire time we’ve lived here.”
With one previous exception, Falsani said. Two of the boys who participated in the recent incident also were involved in racial name calling aimed at their son in a classroom last year, said Falsani, who could not say if those students were disciplined for their actions. A former LBHS student, who told her of three other racially charged incidents observed at the high school, helped convince the parents to speak up. “If left unchecked, history tells us these things continue to escalate. We want to nip that progression,” Falsani said.
When a student wearing a Ku Klux Klan like hood jumped up at a school assembly several years ago, the former LBHS principal asked history teachers to address the incident by talking about racism during one class period, said teacher Carolen Sadler, who was aghast at the tepid response that she thinks reflects a denial of the seriousness of the problem. More recently, she offered extra credit for students in her two history classes to see the new film “Hidden Figures,” about black women involved in the space program. None took up her offer, she said.
“Somewhere there is a huge disconnect,” Sadler said of her students. “They are totally insensitive to people who aren’t like themselves.”
And while Vasco’s parents say they and their son are still processing the jarring insult, the three are determined to wrest good from vitriol, though they have yet to settle on a direction.
“We can’t not address this publicly,” Possley said. “If we don’t, who will?”
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