SAMOHI — A diverse assortment of Santa Monica city officials, school board dignitaries and community members gathered at Santa Monica High School Saturday to discuss an issue that lurks on the periphery of polite conversation — racism.
The event, called a Dialogue on Race, was one of several structured discussions on the origins, consequences and ultimate resolution of uneven race relations in Santa Monica, with an emphasis of their impacts on the learning environment in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
From that perspective, five members of the Board of Education attended, as well as City Manager Rod Gould, representatives from the health community and Darrell Goode, president of the Santa Monica and Venice chapter of the NAACP.
SMMUSD staff convened the event in response to an alleged racial incident involving wrestlers at Samohi that came to light just before the end of the past school year.
According to police reports, a young African American wrestler was chained to a locker by two other juveniles after walking by a wrestling dummy that had been placed near a rope tied in a noose-like configuration.
An alternative explanation, put forward by the parent of one of the boys involved, held that the supposed noose was a normal way to prep the dummy for wrestling practice.
The Santa Monica Police Department investigation on the matter has been sent to the District Attorney for consideration.
Whatever that investigation yields, the conversation Saturday veered away from the specifics of the incident, and focused on a more fundamental issue — the prevailing feeling amongst minority groups that the specter of racism, often felt but never discussed, negatively impacts the education of children in the school district.
SMMUSD is plagued by a wide gap in achievement between minority students and their white or Asian counterparts, a phenomenon which earned it a failing grade on a scale created by independent nonprofit Education Trust West.
Ensuring that every child feels comfortable in the classroom and gets an equal education is the ultimate goal of the district, said Board of Education President Jose Escarce in his opening remarks.
“We know that we are far from that ideal,” he said.
The assembled individuals broke off into eight groups moderated by a pair of facilitators, one from the school establishment and the other from an unrelated organization, like the SMPD.
Each group took 90 minutes to discuss three topics set forth by James Williams III, a moderator on loan from the Department of Justice.
“You’re going to look at who we are as a community, where we are, what is our vision for the shared space that we occupy and what we’re willing to do to manifest that vision,” Williams told the groups.
Moderators broke down that massive charge into a series of probing questions that examined what race relations look like now, what actions or events have taken place to improve them and what the community, schools and other organizations must do to fulfill that commitment.
The group conversations themselves were confidential, but each elected two members to report out the meat of the dialogue.
Ideas ranged from the most simple — becoming advocates for change at public meetings — to the creative extreme of cross-cultural home exchanges between students in the district as a way of breaking down stereotypes and exposing students to other lifestyles.
Participants were then asked to place green stickers next to issues raised that they found the most compelling.
Equitable funding for schools, use of programs that specifically target achievement for minority groups and creation of ethnic studies curriculum topped the list.
Funding has been at the forefront of conversations within the school district, which is examining a move toward district-wide fundraising so that schools with less fundraising power do not fall behind their wealthier counterparts.
Participants were encouraged to attend any of two Board of Education meetings taking place Nov. 3 and 17, where district-wide fundraising will be discussed.
“There was a rich dialogue,” said Superintendent Sandra Lyon. “There were a lot of ideas here.”
Rodney Lyttle, a visiting representative from Warren Wilson College invited to the event by school officials, found the conversation “fascinating,” and appreciated the variety of people focused on pushing forward to the next steps in the racial dialogue.
“What surprises me more is there should have been three times as many people here,” Lyttle said. “This affects everybody.”
The next dialogue on race, which will continue the work begun at Saturday’s meeting, will take place Saturday, Feb 4, 2012.