PUBLIC SAFETY FACILITY — Citing concerns about a possible conflict of interest, Santa Monica Police Chief Tim Jackman on Wednesday asked the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to investigate allegations that administrators at Santa Monica High School destroyed evidence related to a possible hate crime involving members of the high school’s wrestling team.

Jackman referred the case to sheriff’s deputies after his investigators were made aware of allegations that administrators may have handled the incident unlawfully, specifically erasing students’ cell phone pictures of the alleged hate crime, sources said.

Since there is a close relationship between the school district and City Hall, the chief felt it would be best to let an outside agency handle it, SMPD Sgt. Richard Lewis said.

City Hall sends millions of dollars annually to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District as part of a joint-use agreement that gives residents access to some of the school district’s facilities, mostly ball fields.

The shift to the sheriff does not signify that police or school administrators did anything wrong, Lewis added.

Santa Monica detectives will continue investigating the alleged hate crime, Lewis said.

An African-American member of the Samohi wrestling team told police last week that on May 4 fellow teammates put a noose around a brown practice dummy and then chained the teen to a locker and made racial remarks.

The teen’s mother, Victoria Gray, told the Daily Press that the school never notified her of the alleged attack and she only learned about it from another parent on May 31.

A June 16 e-mail to parents from Samohi Principal Hugo A. Pedroza called the alleged incident a “serious matter that warranted a swift and appropriate response.”

He said the students were suspended or received other discipline, while the entire wrestling team received sensitivity training.

In a mass e-mail sent Wednesday to the Samohi community and members of the media, Robert Forster, a volunteer coach for the high school wrestling program who has a son on the team, said that the media has it all wrong, that there never was any racial overtones.

He wrote that occasionally the practice dummy is hung off a chin-up bar with a rope positioned under the armpits so that members of the team can perform different drills. On the day in question, he writes that a former member of the team was trying to hang the dummy up, but failed, leaving the rope dangling from the chin up bar. The rope was tied in a “noose-like knot,” Forster wrote.

“This was an understandably disturbing scene to some students,” Forster wrote, “but any noose symbolism was not the stated intent of the actions of their former teammate.”

As far as the teen being locked by his belt loop, Forster said it is a common “prank” that is pulled on nearly every teammate during the course of the season. He said the dummy incident and the prank are completely unrelated.

“I have not witnessed any racial discrimination in my 10 years of involvement with the team,” Forster wrote. “These hardworking student athletes sweat together, eat together and even stay together at overnight tournaments regardless of race or religion.”

A civil rights activist, meanwhile, urged the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office to investigate.

The school’s disciplinary action against the students was inadequate and its delay in reporting the attack was “a shameless cover-up of an apparent vicious racially motivated attack,” said a statement from Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.

The students involved should be charged with hate crimes and anything less “sends the dangerous message that campus hate attacks will not be punished with speed and severity,” Hutchinson said.

SMMUSD Superintendent Tim Cuneo issued a statement Wednesday saying the district “welcomes the investigation and is fully cooperating” with police.

kevinh@www.smdp.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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