Dozens of community members came to the William S. Hart Union High School District’s governing board meeting Wednesday evening on the heels of a now-viral video that’s generated renewed concerns about how on-campus incidents involving racist speech are being addressed.
A video shared in a tweet Friday showed two girls driving around Valencia High School’s parking lot repeatedly singing a song with the lyrics “I don’t like (racial slur).”
After the clip was shared via Twitter, it garnered nearly 2 million views, and the Hart district was once again in the spotlight to address concerns about racism.
In response, Superintendent Mike Kuhlman promised the parents, staff and community members who showed up to a news conference organized Tuesday by the NAACP Santa Clarita chapter that there would be accountability for the students involved in the incident, adding the type of behavior shown in the video would not be tolerated on the district’s campuses.
While there was no scheduled action item on Wednesday’s agenda, community members and the board anticipated the heated discussion that unfolded, which resulted in shouting, name-calling and, ultimately, board member James Webb leaving the meeting after a little over an hour of public comment on the topic.
Just over 30 community members took the opportunity to share their views and concerns, including representatives of Valencia High’s Black Student Union, parents upset over past racists incidents their children experienced on Hart district campuses, a group led by Bradford that called for board member Joe Messina’s resignation over his Twitter activity, and a contingent who felt the outrage was misplaced and should be aimed at the types of lyrics the girls filmed themselves singing.
Di Thompson, a parent who spoke at Tuesday’s news conference and the meeting, addressed those who said the girls were only repeating lyrics they heard and that the lyrics were the actual culprit. She called the scenario an “appropriate double-standard” in terms of how the slur has been used in more modern times.
She shared the story of how when her daughter, who’s now a sophomore in college, tried to bring up the use of the N-word on campus to administration at Valencia High, Thompson was told, “‘Well, they say it in songs,’” she recalled. “That is not an excuse.”
“There is an appropriate double-standard,” she added. “When you have a word that is weaponized against you, sometimes you use that word in order to protect yourself, OK? This is why implicit bias training is needed in the schools and in the district, with the administrators with the staff and the students. History is repeating itself.”
Parent Virginia Ryan said it was both “arrogant” and “ignorant” to think that any one speaker at the meeting could speak for the climate or mood at each and every school in one brush stroke.
“But what I do know is, sometimes good kids, both good and bad kids, do stupid things,” she said, adding experts note the human brain isn’t fully developed until age 25.
“If rapists, murderers, pedophiles can be forgiven and given a second chance in life, then we as adults need to extend the same courtesy to these girls,” she added. While she said she would be livid if it were her child, she added the district’s best option was to make the incident a teachable moment.
“This is not a school board issue, this is a family issue,” she said, adding it’s not the school board’s job to raise her children or anyone else’s.
Board member Cherise Moore, who is Black, shared her frustration with events over the last few days in a tearful board report at the opening of the meeting, adding that she was ready “to start healing.
“Somebody saw me walk in the room with my eyes red,” Moore said. “The hurt is deep and the hurt is real. But I’m ready to start healing from this pain, this trauma. I’m ready to not be exhausted and angry anymore. I’m ready to not be disrespected, to not be belittled. I’m ready for us to hear and to act with courage and to have courageous conversations.”
Recognizing some of the complaints of the speakers at Tuesday’s news conference, which were also shared at Wednesday’s meeting, Moore also acknowledged work that the district could do as well to improve.
“We have policies in place that speak to how we handle hate when it happens. And we need to tighten those up so that our practices can be put in place,” she added. “I’m sad that this is an issue that is giving us the opportunity to look at things that we’ve needed to look at a lot of time, but I’m grateful that I trust this group of board members to make bold decisions, courageous decisions, to help us move to where we want to be.”
Valerie Bradford, president of the local NAACP chapter, who organized Tuesday’s news conference, encouraged community members to join her in addressing the board to make sure there were policies in place that could help prevent such an incident from happening in the future.
“We began the process of doing everything that we should and can do to improve the status of our African American students in our Hart district. (Tuesday,) we called out the students. Today I’m here to call out a board member,” she said during her public comment Wednesday.
Bradford was referring to a March 3 social media exchange she had with Messina, who retweeted a post from Errol Webber, a Black documentary film producer. The post said that more than 40% of Black people living in South Carolina owned slaves according to 1830 Census data, as well as several other statistics, as a way to refute “the next time some leftical or Democrat animosity agent spews lies about how slavery in the U.S. was rooted in racism.”
Bradford said the statistics were taken out of context and Messina was “racist in his consensus that slavery was not rooted in racism because he just found out that Black people owned slaves.”
Messina said Wednesday in a phone interview before the meeting that the tweets were part of a “broader conversation” that’s taking place on Twitter. His point was that the whole story on slavery is not being told in schools, he said.
On Twitter, Bradford responded that the statistics were being reported out of context and that most of the Black Americans who owned slaves had a personal interest in their well-being — for example, a free husband who purchased his wife.
Messina started his board member report Wednesday by acknowledging that he knew why the crowd was gathered at the meeting, and said he had no tolerance for racism.
“Nobody should be called names and be put down, not only for the color of their skin, or the music they listen to or their sexual orientation,” he said.
“It’s always interesting to me that the people who talk about tolerance and love look for something they can find or dig at me,” Messina said, adding that the same people who attack him consistently over things they perceive to be negative never acknowledge when he posts things that he thinks they would perceive to be positive.
Resident Tony Maldonado called the entire incident “selective outrage” on both sides and, identifying himself as a person of color who’s also a music industry executive, he said no one at the meeting “had the guts” to fight the music industry.
“Where was your outrage when (the author of the song the girls were filmed singing) London Yellow came out with these lyrics?” he asked rhetorically, noting the song had been downloaded more than 13 million times.
He also pointed out that Messina’s tweet in question was written by a Black man who’s run for Congress three times and questioned how the NAACP could consider that racist.
“Let’s look within and heal this. We can do this,” he added. “Both sides are responsible for this.”
The tone of the discussion was contentious at several points, and a little over an hour in, Webb stood up from the dais and said he had seen enough, apparently frustrated over how board President Bob Jensen was running the meeting.
“I am going on record saying there has been such deplorable behavior,” Webb said, after about 64 minutes of public comment, almost all of it focusing on various aspects of how racism affected local schools and society.
“You can’t keep saying, ‘I’m going to stop it. I’m going to stop it. I’m going to stop it,’ and then not stop it,” Webb said, referring to a handful of admonitions that Jensen gave the crowd in an effort to keep the discussion orderly and stop the repeated shouting.
“I am very upset. I am seeing the dark side of human behavior,” he added. “I can’t … I don’t want my children to see it. And I’m leaving.”
Speakers on Wednesday also brought up past incidents that have led to lawsuits against the district as examples for why actions need to be taken now to curb this behavior in the future.
Bradford said Thursday she wasn’t surprised at how the meeting ended up, but she was disappointed that she came away feeling those in attendance Wednesday weren’t open to hearing what the NAACP was trying to convey, in terms of the hurt that was experienced by the girls who spoke up and the children of the parents who shared their stories.
However, she’s hopeful that the conversations that have been started by the incident ultimately will lead to a meaningful policy change and create a deterrent, as well as a policy and procedure that creates similar repercussions if a staff member or official behaves in a similar way.
“They came with their minds already made up, and so I don’t know how much progress we made with those that were in attendance,” Bradford said. “That being said, I believe that the school board heard us and we just hope that they will, in fact, look at implementing policy and procedures for students and for board members.”
Moore declined to address Messina’s posts in a phone interview Thursday, but said she wanted the board to take the lead in “doing some of the training and professional development to help us understand some of the cultural sensitivity needs and the racial reconciliation opportunities that we have as a community.”
The district has good definitions in place that address hate, she said, but acknowledged the district doesn’t spell out any repercussions for when students commit hate-motivated behavior.
“We know what we don’t tolerate,” Moore said, “so then what?”