SAMOHI — Victoria Gray didn’t think much of it when her 17-year-old son stayed home from school on May 5.
Everyone needs a mental health day sometimes, she told him, thinking that perhaps he needed the extra freedom to get caught up on homework or take a breather from the pressure cooker of high school.
It would take another three and a half weeks before her phone rang. A woman Gray did not know informed her there had been an incident at school.
According to the parents of minors who witnessed the alleged events, on May 4 before wrestling practice during sixth period at Santa Monica High School, teammates entered the practice room and saw a noose. Nearby was a wrestling practice dummy.
Varying reports describe the noose and dummy in different configurations. Although pictures were taken using students’ cell phones, most if not all were deleted at the request of staff, according to multiple sources, including Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Tim Cuneo.
Gray’s son, who is on the team and is African American, walked past the dummy and noose into the locker room to change into gym clothes.
Two boys allegedly approached him in the locker room. One grabbed him in what Gray described as a “bear hug,” while the other slipped a lock through his belt loop and connected it to a nearby locker.
The boys allegedly then walked back out of the room, shouting, “Slave for sale.”
The wrestling coach, Mark Black, walked in on the scene and broke it up immediately. The incident was reported to administration that night, and counseling sessions were held for students that needed to speak about what they had seen.
That day, May 5, Gray’s son did not attend school.
Gray was at work on May 31 when she found out about what had happened. Her son didn’t tell her, not wanting to make a big deal out of it.
Although other parents on the team had been told, Cuneo said, for some reason, Gray was not informed.
“I apologized to her personally,” he said.
Whether the juvenile victim wanted it to be or not, the situation was a big deal, said Darrell Goode, president of the NAACP for Santa Monica and Venice.
“When behavior comes out this darkly, it requires a high level of awareness and reaction to it,” Goode said. “One, we have to make sure the victim is OK. Two, if there’s a crime committed, we must make sure it’s addressed appropriately.”
Even the symbolic use of a noose is considered a hate crime in California, Goode said.
The school district does have a policy that deals with hate-motivated behavior that states that behavior or statements that “degrade an individual on the basis of his or her race, ethnicity, culture, heritage, sexual orientation, physical or mental attributes, religious beliefs or practices shall not be tolerated.”
Students found guilty of perpetrating a hate crime can be suspended or recommended for expulsion, according to the policy, and must attend the appropriate counseling, sensitivity training and diversity education.
Counseling may also be provided for the victims. In this case, there was a workshop the day following the incident, and a wider workshop held for all athletes subsequent to that.
“We expanded discussions at that level because we felt that when the horseplay you see happen between kids turns into something like this, we’re concerned about it expanding,” Cuneo said.
The two juveniles involved were punished under the hate-motivated behavior policy, which is the same as the harassment policy, Cuneo said.
One of the boys is homeschooled, and attends one class at Samohi. The other is registered as a daily student.
They were suspended, will attend counseling and will work with staff to provide anti-bullying and anti-hazing workshops for incoming freshmen.
Cuneo met with Gray Wednesday afternoon to discuss what had happened, and what steps the district would take to shed light on the matter.
Gray had three requests: To send out a mass e-mail to parents and teachers saying that a racial incident had occurred, to create a separate document in the student handbook for students to sign regarding racial discrimination and to clarify punishment for the involved students.
A mass e-mail, sent on behalf of Samohi Principal Dr. Hugo Pedroza, was sent Thursday afternoon. It described the event as “an incident with racial overtones,” but did not give details about what had occurred.
Cuneo did not agree to including a separate form, noting that harassment was covered by a wider policy that mentioned race, found on page 14 of the student handbook.
Goode, who also attended the meeting with the superintendent, called for a full investigation of the incident in its totality to clarify many of the points that remain uncertain, including the use of the noose and the positioning of the dummy.
“We want it clear so we can unravel the whole situation,” Goode said.
Parents remain unhappy about the outcome, and ultimately worried for both the wrestling program and for its leader, Black, who they hold in high regard.
“He is respected, and loves my child,” said parent Sherri Walker. “He helped her with her homework. He’s a very rare coach who looks out for the overall good of the child, not just the athleticism of the child. Those boys did a discredit to him.”
Cuneo confirmed that neither the wrestling team nor its coach were in jeopardy.