Shining a Spotlight on a Racial Attack

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Parents Cathleen Falsani and Maurice Possley spoke openly about a racially motivated attack against their family to embolden others to stand against intolerance.
Parents Cathleen Falsani and Maurice Possley spoke openly about a racially motivated attack against their family to embolden others to stand against intolerance.

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.

Vasco Possley marches in a July 4 parade in Laguna Beach in 2010. Photo by Mary Hurlbut
Vasco Possley marches in a July 4 parade in Laguna Beach in 2010. Photo by Mary Hurlbut

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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48 COMMENTS

  1. I am so sorry. If you need anything please let me know. It’s awful to see something happen like this in such a nice, open-minded community

  2. I am disgusted, saddened and without words to describe my feelings at this moment. Hate is “learned at the dinner table” when small children hear their parents discuss bigioted ideas! Shame on you!!!

  3. Mario at Rasta Taco would like to show some love to your family with a lunch. He reached out to a post on social media.
    My two sons play on the baseball and basketball teams, both teams send our love to your family. Please let us know if we can do anything helpful for all of you.

  4. Evidently it’s been an ongoing problem. How is this possible in 2017, and here in Laguna Beach where we pride ourselves on tolerance and inclusion? And why haven’t our School Officials and Police done anything?

  5. Who’s parenting the racist offenders? The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And if you think “it can’t happen here [in Laguna]” then you are living in a bubble.

  6. Man, this is so disappointing!!!!!! I just can’t imagine this happening in our awesome community. Thanks for standing up and reporting this incident. We have so much love in Laguna to overcome this and much much more. Vasco and family, know that we are all with you!!!!!

  7. So extremely sad!
    Parents have to teach their children right from wrong!
    I’m so sorry you and your son had to go thru this!

  8. We really appreciate Vasco – he is a great young man who often gives his time to the community- He volunteers for AYSO countless hours . We are blessed to have him in our community. I too want to see the perpetrators charged. There should be no tolerance for this kind of behavior.

  9. Sweet Family-
    This last few months has been so heavy hearing rhetoric publicly spoken that most of us would disallow our children to voice. Just reading of your horrible experience felt like salt in the wound, I can’t imagine the hurt in your heart. Please know we believe it takes a village and those of us who hold love in our hearts for all are here at any time, will stand with you to be treated as all would like to be treated. I have sent a letter to the High School in hopes they are addressing this incident with the highest priority.
    Sending love and support from the Jaeger Family

  10. Ugh…this angers me so!! These are ignorant people & I had hoped & thought especially here in California we were better than that!! I hope they’re caught & that “change” can happen! I’m so sorry to hear this happen to your son, or any child, or just anyone Ever!!

  11. Gr8 story to have read! To bad it is a true event that has happened to you and your son! The same kind of thing happened to me while I lived there also! I hope you have great success in the attention you attract! It’s a tough battle to endure! Deprive you of all the joy you so rightfully deserve! It has a long history and it strives to out live the good in this world! Keep the fight aive though!

  12. We had an issue with one of these boys at St. Catherine’s school. He harassed the Mexican and Asian kids and called the girls horrible degrading names. The brother actually created an Instagram to promote racism. Of course the parents took NO responsibility but the family was finally asked to leave the school. I will never understand parents who promote hate and racism. Very Very Sad. Hopefully this time the kid will be held responsible for his actions.

  13. We are not in Laguna Beach to go see them, but my wife and I are long time friends of the Possley family, and we have reached out personally and connected with their family and friends, including in the alternative social media that serves our community. We have expressed our support and been part of the community standing by them, and the character values they model so well as a family in our town. As an inter-racial adoptive parent in a town of privileged elites I can tell you we have seen more subtle manifestations of social ignorance and prejudice, and it always surprises us but makes us stronger. This this incident adds a dimension of race based hate and aggression that implicates physical violence. Thus, here in this impersonal publication it will just be noted that we have for years been expressing concern about negative socialization in our public schools, especially at Thurston and Laguna Beach. Instead of mindlessly and defensively out of fear protecting the elitist School Power/PTA/LBUSD image of “privatized public schools,” for years we should have been addressing loss of our small town public school tradition that sustains healthier socialization even for at risk kids. The acceleration of negatively modeled adult and student behavior at LBHS in particularly included the example set when a few politically influential adults and student athletes too weak minded to stand up to homophobic harassment unethically manipulated student affairs to abandon the “Artists” tradition at LBHS. Instead of standing up to the hate speech demeaning the Artists tradition as “effeminate,” or standing up for our community values of diversity and tolerance, the School Board infamously stonewalled parents and students who defended our town’s character. Next came the “Real Laguna Beach” reality TV at LBHS fiasco, in which the School Board bowed to public pressure by rescinding its unanimous approval of reality TV production on the LBHS campus, but defied the public by urging continued school community support for the program and ensuring the casting of students auditioned on campus. The inordinately high risk of social and emotional adjustment disorder and substance abuse at LBHS today is in part a direct legacy of the hyper-promotion and exploitative glamorizing of LBHS partying scene and substance abuse emanating from that School Board abuse of student and parent rights. We have been advocating restoration of real constitution based student government to provide pathways to leadership and peer to peer student responsibility, including peer managed social and academic support and discipline programs. Instead the LBHS administration and School Board have chosen artificially structured adult controlled student focus groups that trivialize student affairs in a way students correctly see as paternalistic and patronizing. There can be no better example than the way our School Board treats student representatives. Even when they try they get it wrong. The problem also is exemplified by the Indy’s featured quotes by LBHS teacher Sadler in its report on this race hate story. Sadler, who by the way actively and in a very politicized manner supported the LBUSD officials who perpetrated the “Artists” and “Real Laguna Beach” debacles, illustrates who sterile and barren the fields of learning are at LBHS when it comes to student socialization. Like former LBUSD Supt. Smith when LBHS students dared to oppose the failed social host ordinance for irrelevance, Sadler castigates students for being apathetic about her offer of “extra credit” for going to see a Hollywood production about racial prejudice in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Is that what passes for “going deep” and “critical thinking” at LBHS? After all the funds spent over the last few years on teacher indoctrination to new standards, is that what passes for “enhanced rigor,” or is it just lazy teaching that blames bad results on the kids? Why not empower students with class assignments and even better yet real student government structures in which students decide what social issues matter, and what constitutes good character. When students address themselves to the issues they face in their own lives and times, that is when the history of the adult generation might start to matter. Why not empower students to convene a symposium on what influences their values? Let students take an inventory of social influencers for themselves, instead of the charade of adult and educational bureaucracy driven state government healthy kids surveys relied on by the government agency and contractor driven Community Coalition? Ever listen to kids talk about what they hear and see on social media, internet and in the news? Let young men and women tell us about what they really feel and believe they are expected to think and feel and be. Let them talk about sexism and racism in their generation. Belittling students for not being obedient or compliant with generational expectations of adult educators is typical of the adults in LBUSD. Why should they study the heroes and villains of our generation’s racism or sexism or hedonism when they are not even allowed to talk about their own generation’s good and bad character issues, their own heroes and anti-heroes? It is condescending for Sadler to be judgmental toward students because she has not found a way to reach them. We pay our teachers 20% more than any district in OC, and this is what passes for “excellence” we need to protect? This is what happens when school spending is not linked to school population and attendance, our teachers become custodial caretakers instead of mentors. Why not call up parents and take the entire class to go see the dame movie, after a class party where the kids talk about race in their own lives? LBHS is as good as a cutting edge private high school? You are in denial if you think so. Just like the current Board President, who stated on the record last year that the Board and District has done a good job dealing with drug abuse at LBHS. You want to talk about the 60’s, Ms. Sadler, well I will tell you this: Students at LBHS are more at risk of drug addiction and overdose at LBHS today than they were during the peak of the 1960’s hippie drug subculture in our town. We should be ensuring students are able to express what they are seeing modeled for them in terms of race and sex, not starting in 2017, but over their young lives, and there should be student driven peer experiences and learning moments in which truth is revealed. We have been explicitly advocating social realism at LBHS for years, but all we get is the “good news culture” of School Power/PTA/LBUSD about the new building enhancements to schools that already are the envy of the world. What is the use of better buildings if what goes on in the buildings leaves these kids with no where to channel their mixed up feelings about race other than imitation of hate they see in adult controlled media. Where is the peer to peer dialogue? Extra credit to go see a movie? Are you kidding me? You wonder who kids who have everything could get into trouble like this race incident? How stupid can we be? With a School Board that thinks don’t worry be happy image and Indy articles about the buddy bench are more important than realism about what is working and what is not, what do you expect? Where is the reporting on who doesn’t feel safe on the buddy bench, why, and what happens to those kids and their families? Oh, that is “negative” right? I am glad the Possely’s went public, and I am glad they appreciate how this matter was handled once reported, at least so far. We will watch and wait to see if there is truth and justice leading to reconciliation in how this case is handled, and whether there is anything done along the lines we have been advocating for years to prevent it from being repeated. This time it involved racism, but the negative socialization issues at LBHS cover a broad spectrum and are not being addressed comprehensively or adequately given the resources expended per pupil per year, higher than any district in OC, among the highest in the state and the nation.

  14. Vasco is such kind young man. Very respectful. See him at Brooks St. beach all the time. It really angers me when I hear this kind of ingnorance and hateful behavior demonstrated. Your family is in my prayers.

  15. I’m the founder of a nonprofit in Laguna Beach called “Ability Awareness Project” and LearnToStopBullying.org that provide anti bullying education for schools. We teach empathy, non judgment, kindness, compassion, tolerance, understanding and friendship to build a bully free environment and lead our next generation towards an interconnected humanistic path. I fought Thurston Middle School for three years but unfortunately they remained as closed as they are today. Most of my work is done outside our district; I go where I’m asked to go and I am deeply saddened that our beautiful hometown rather brush this problem under the rug than to face it and provide solutions. However, now that I know this, I will not sit quietly, I will take this story and visit the high school soon and hopefully they are open to provide this education for our youth that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

  16. Vasco, I have enjoyed watching you grow up from a distance – every summer, spending hours perfecting your wave riding whether on a boogie board, a surf board or no board at all. I even commented to you this summer, while we were both enjoying the unusually warm water temps, that I thought you spent more time in the water than out. It was heartwarming to see a young man such as yourself so thoroughly enjoying all the beauty Laguna has to offer.

    Seeing a photo (from a follow up article) of your distinctive wetsuit hanging out to dry juxtaposed against the ugliness on the ground was beyond disturbing. I applaud you and your parents for coming forward and helping many of us realize all is not what it seems here in beautiful Laguna. While I suspect these next few months won’t be easy, I hope you derive comfort from the many people in this town who care about you and your family. See you in the water.

  17. I don’t know your family personally but am a local and have 2 children in the elementary school. I’m very sorry this happened and my children will be made aware of this so they can continue to understand the realities of this world and that actions as distasteful and characterless as they are, happen to children – happen to people of color and different race, etc and can not be tolerated and must be called out each and every time it’s seen or heard. These kids at fault, at their ages should know better in thier heart. This isn’t stealing a lipgloss at cvs or toilet papering a house.

    This is a deeper and disturbing flaw and I am sorry again this has happened to you and your child.

    Thanks for writing about your experience.

  18. I am mightily disappointed to read about this hate-filled incident. My husband and I worship with this family every Sunday, and we love and respect them as generous, creative friends. Vasco is everything one could hope to see in a son and a young adult. My heart hurts to think of Vasco and his family being treated this way. Come on, Laguna. We are better than this! I pray for a change of heart in the five young people who caused this pain and give thanks for the generosity of spirit shown by Cathleen, Maurice, and Vasco in their response.

  19. I can guarantee that many, if not most of the students in the school where these 5 boys attend know all about the incident; hence are capable of informing the school IF it can be done anonymously. No doubt some teachers know too. So the question is, why aren’t these 5 boys getting counseling and doing public service in, say, South Central? This isn’t a question of punishment, but awareness and redemption. Quite disappointed to read this story.

  20. Punks- yelling racial epithets, attacking a wonderful young man who’s overcome so much adversity, I certainly hope LBHS can make an example of them.

    What an awful example these kids are setting, hopefully the district is swift in their action and just in their consequences.

  21. Ok so this has already occurred to this young man in a classroom with at least two of this idiotic kids. What did this teacher do? He or she is obligated by law to report such incidents. As a former teacher in this district for over 30 years, I am not surprised. Being of Mexican descent I was continually aghast at teachers telling students not to use the word [Mexican] because it would offend. Look at the teaching staff and administrator pool; teachers who mirror under-represented minority groups are just not hired. Administrators did not engage in discovering or investigating ways to address issues of diversity of thought, race and ethnicity, sexual identity and drug use. These last years they have been too focused on scores and common core. The School Boards, both past and present are responsible for this. They have never moved towards addressing these issues. Our past administrators were horrible in that they did not communicate with teachers directly to find out what was really going on in the classroom and on campus. We all know what went down when one teacher in particular wanted to address issues of sexual orientation due to student interest yet was accused by administrators of coming to school under the influence. The outcome slapped them in the face when they had to pay out money for having attempted to smear her reputation. These parents of the boys involved should be ashamed. The parents of the young black student should take the necessary steps to hold the boys accountable and investigate if any other incidents have happened at school and if teachers or administrators took any steps to abate this conduct. As can be read in the comments; people are offering their support and total disgust of what unfortunately happened. As is said in Spanish; Pueblo chico, infierno grande.

  22. We support Vasco and his family. There is no room in our community or our world for this type of hate. Embracing all of our unique differences, education, support and kindness must be the direction we continue to move in. Shine a light real bright so darkness cannot prevail.

  23. No trespass or violation stings like one motivated merely by your identity. Nothing is uglier.

    When it occurs, if it is not met with decisive, conspicuous condemnation by the community, it festers. It happens again, and this time is considered an embarrassing nuisance. It happens again, and now it is an unfortunate bit of trouble that happens not often, but inevitably from time to time around here. The next time it happens, it is “Normal.”

    You live, then, in a community where racist aggression is normal.

    Say something. Say much more than a written comment. Do something. Do much more than promise yourself that you will take action if you ever observe racist acts firsthand.

    I haven’t heard yet about any planned community responses, but if this is still Laguna Beach, I’m confident there will be one. When there is, Do that.

    #StandWithVasco
    #StandAgainstHate

  24. I am so sorry that your beautiful son had to experience this. There will never be any justification for this kind of behavior in Laguna or anywhere else. The parents of these boys need to explain as well. Racism is learned. We all must continue to speak up about this.

  25. #STANDWITHVASCO
    #STAND AGAINST HATE
    Way to go Laguna by addressing this head on, my daughter went to Dana Hills High School and was called a racist name in class and the principal of DHHS did absolutely nothing and was actually put out that we made a fuss over it. It takes a brave family to bring this to light! It’s too bad that some parents care more about their child’s appearance and not enough about the content of their character.

  26. So sad. Our teenagers should be taught to embrace differences. Those boys do not know how much hate is in this hate crime. I hope they see the error of their ways and walk away from a distructive future. It’s never too late to choose to do the right thing.
    #StandWithVasco
    #StandAgainstHate

  27. Its sad but true, rasism is alive and well in Laguna Beach.. Most folks keep racism to those who think alike, every now and again true colors are publicly exposed.

  28. It is unfathomable to me that Vasco should be forced to attend school with the people that carried out this crime. This isn’t kids being kids. There needs to be consequences for such a hateful and deliberate act. The fact that at least one of the perpetrators was accused of a racist act against Vasco in the past shows that any previous punishments/warnings/appeals to common decency were inadequate/ineffective. The school district has a well known history of sweeping unpopular events under the rug. Just last year they made a blatant cheating scandal involving a “highly regarded” student magically disappear with no consequences. The student was still able to attend an elite university with little to no repercussions. It isn’t enough to give lip service to doing to right thing. It sounds like LBHS tried to “Teach cultural proficiency” last time something occurred to this poor kid and it didn’t stick. We need to do better by Vasco. That means holding people accountable and ensuring that despicable acts are met with commensurate consequences.

  29. Expel them from LBHS, we don’t need the kids involved in such acts spreading their hate to others. Pretty simple and appropriate in this case.

    The perpetrators should spend some time reflecting on their actions, step forward and admit their wrongdoings and help others learn from their complete lack of judgement, compassion and love.

  30. This is a deplorable act of racism, cowardice, and ignorance–one that has been perpetrated throughout history and that continues to happen daily to members of our communities (no matter how “progressive”) because they are perceived as different from the majority because of their race, LGBTQ status, etc.

    This crime is a significant injury to Vasco and his family, but it is also an injury to the larger Laguna Beach community. It erodes trust, sows division, creates fear, alienates and marginalizes residents of diverse backgrounds, pits family against family, and potentially normalizes attitudes and behaviors that are morally repugnant.

    I hope that, rather than “sweeping it under the rug” (as some have suggested is occuring) or instead of calling it a closed case after simply shaming the offending parties and levying traditional criminal penalties, the Laguna Beach community will use this as an opportunity for healing and true transformation via a Restorative Justice process. These young men are all on the cusp of adulthood. The community has a unique and fleeting chance to provide restoration in place of retribution, to create a positive lasting impact on the lives of all involved, to open the eyes and minds of the offenders, help them take meaningful responsibility, and to send them out into the world as better human beings.

    Restorative justice is a different way of thinking about crime and our response to crime. It focuses on repairing the harm caused by crime and reducing future harm. It requires offenders to take responsibility for their actions and for the harm they have caused. It seeks redress for victims, recompense by offenders, and reintegration of both within the community and it requires a cooperative effort by the community and its institutions.
    For more info see: http://restorativejustice.org

    I hope community leaders will step forward and commit to repairing this harm, reducing the risk of this ever happening again (here and wherever these young men go next), and restoring and healing the community.

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