SMMUSD HDQTRS — Members of the Board of Education promised substantive changes in curriculum and training as well as a progress report within two months in response to a racial incident that officials acknowledge took place at Santa Monica High School in May.

Board President Jose Escarce prefaced the discussion with an extensive list of things that the board planned to direct staff to accomplish in the short summer months, including a hard look at curriculum and policies to ensure that students would be educated about the nature of racism, and that district employees were better prepared to handle it should a similar incident arise again.

The review will make sure that the freshman seminar, which deals with racism and cultural tolerance, would be reexamined, and that reading lists included books that presented minority characters in balanced, powerful and positive ways, said outgoing-Superintendent Tim Cuneo.

It was his last day with the district before making way for incoming-Superintendent Sandra Lyon, who also attended the meeting.

Board members also called for a revitalization of the Intercultural District Advisory Committee, which fell into disuse a few years ago after racial tensions at the high school, which have historically flared up every few years, died down again.

“We should use the incident as a catalyst, or a stepping stone to do what we can as a board to make change,” Escarce said.

The incident, which allegedly involved a brown wrestling dummy placed in some proximity to a noose and a black athlete chained to a locker at wrestling practice, inflamed the African-American and Latino communities, which showed up in force at Thursday’s meeting to demand change.

So many came, in fact, that members of the Santa Monica Police Department stood ready to keep the crowd under control, and the fire marshal required a separate overflow room to accommodate the additional people.

Speakers called on the board for real results, rather than a nice introspective examination followed by a useless report left to molder on a shelf.

However, a different account of events also emerged, coming from a local physical therapist, Bob Forster, who volunteers as a walk-on coach for the wrestling team and is the father of one of the students involved in the alleged hate crime, sources said.

Forster told the audience that events had been taken out of context, and that the prank was just that, a joke.

“No one here has spoken to the athletes,” Forster said. “No one knows the intent.”

Past wrestling captains spoke to support the team, saying that something may have happened, but described the team as an inclusive family.

“Everyone there is a good kid,” said Tim Warren, who captained the team in 2009. “Things got out of hand.”

Although both extremes had proponents, much of the night focused on a desire to confront the underlying problem, racial insensitivity and lack of historical perspective, rather than one symptom.

“We could choose sides and remain divided, or take action that’s meaningful,” said Peggy Harris, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction who came to speak as a civilian. “It’s time to take action.”

District officials committed to get the review under way, and to report back in 60 days.

Additionally, when the sheriff and police department investigations are complete, the school district will conduct its own independent investigation to fill in any holes.

Beyond the nature of the incident and calls for a proactive response, district officials took heat from speakers who criticized the way the incident was handled.

According to reports, when the scene in the locker room was discovered by Coach Mark Black, he immediately put a stop to it and called administration.

Counseling sessions were set up for students who were hurt by what had happened as quickly as the next day, and team members were told to tell their parents what had happened.

Students were also asked to delete pictures taken on cell phones.

No one called the alleged victim’s mother, who found out three weeks later after a parent she did not know contacted her to tell her about the situation.

Outgoing Samohi Principal Hugo Pedroza released an e-mail blast to tell parents that an “incident with racial overtones” had occurred, but only after it had been reported in the local newspaper.

“Nobody should be getting their facts from the newspaper and not the district,” said Debbie Mulvaney, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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