Hijinks or hate?

Local family alleges group of Chico High students guilty of racism, intimidation

Kelly Butler-McGriff and her husband, Malik McGriff, say that planting a Confederate flag on their lawn was an act of hate.

Kelly Butler-McGriff and her husband, Malik McGriff, say that planting a Confederate flag on their lawn was an act of hate.

photo by Ken smith

Since moving into a home near Chico High School in September 2013, Kelly Butler-McGriff claims her family has had to deal with litter, loud music, trespassing and disrespectful behavior from students on a regular basis. But on Jan. 26, Butler-McGriff contends the actions of some of the students escalated from teenage hijinks to an act of racially motivated hate.

Butler-McGriff said she looked out the window of her living room that morning to see an SUV outfitted with a full-size Confederate flag on a short pole. The McGriffs are a multiracial family—Butler-McGriff is white, married to Malik, who’s black, Malik’s mother and the couple’s three children live in the home. Butler-McGriff said the vehicle belonged to a member of a group of particularly problematic young men, and she believes it and the offending flag were parked near the McGriff home intentionally.

The Chico mom said she’s complained to high school administrators and the Chico Police Department an estimated 20 times regarding student behavior since occupying the home, and that morning called the school to complain about the flag. During the lunch hour, a school security guard asked the students—who were at the vehicle—to move, which they did, but she said they returned minutes later.

“I was standing on the porch holding my 3-year-old daughter, and I said, ‘He just told you to leave, get out of here.’” One of them looked straight at me and said, ‘Fuck you, you stupid nigger. What are you going to do about it?’”

“I was disgusted,” Butler-McGriff said, growing emotional as she recounted the incident. “I was shocked, appalled and of course felt completely disrespected.”

She said she immediately called the school again, and a secretary advised her to call the police immediately. She said Chico Police Officer Cameron Kovacs responded, spoke briefly to the students and left without attempting to speak to her or take a report.

It also wasn’t the last the McGriffs saw of the flag. At about 10:30 p.m., the family saw it again, this time staked into their front lawn.

“The response we feel like we’ve gotten is that nobody cares,” Butler-McGriff said of police and school reaction following the racial slur and flag-planting, which her husband characterized as “bold and clear threats.” The McGriffs moved to Chico from the Bay Area, and said they’ve never experienced such blatant racism in their lives.

Butler-McGriff said she expressed the family’s fear and the fact they considered the flag-planting an act of intimidation, but claims an officer responded by saying, “It’s just a flag.” She said she was further convinced that authorities were insensitive to the incident when another officer, Sgt. Cesar Sandoval, asked during a follow-up phone interview on Feb. 5 if her teenage son was “colored.”

“I responded, ‘No, my son is half-black and half-white, he is not colored,’” Butler-McGriff said, noting Sandoval continued the interview unaware of his faux pas. Sandoval didn’t respond to a request for an interview as of press time.

The family was visited Jan. 27 by CHS Assistant Principals Mike Allen and Brian Boyer, but Butler-McGriff said they seemed more worried about the victims’ reaction: “They asked if we were planning any retaliation,” she said.

In an email to the CN&R, Chico High Principal Jim Hanlon said he could share only limited facts about the incident due to student privacy.

“The neighbor reported that racial slurs were used, but we were unable to substantiate the allegation with any witnesses,” Hanlon wrote. “The flag was attached to the student’s vehicle, parked on a public street, not in the person’s yard … It was later reported that a flag was planted in the neighbor’s yard later that night, but there was no evidence it was a student responsible. The police are investigating the issue.”

Hanlon didn’t address inquiries about whether the students were disciplined or whether the school has policies regarding using racial slurs.

Butler-McGriff said she isn’t interested in lawsuits or filing more complaints: “I just want them to pay attention. I hope nobody else has to feel this way.”

She’s gotten some help toward that end from Michael Coyle, a Chico State political science professor and board member of the Chico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Coyle said he’s helping the McGriffs reach out to local organizations to share their experience, and hopes the ugly incident will turn into something positive—a coalition of concerned citizens and organizations to address racism on a local level. He’s also contacted Chico High, and is hoping all parties involved can sit down and reach a personal understanding.

“We need to find out what’s going on in these kids’ heads,” he said. “It’s not about punishment; it’s about having them understand what they’re really doing and address the victims directly. It’s about healing the victims and transforming the offenders so they don’t continue in life thinking that this is an acceptable way to act.”