Students complain of racist treatment

Oroville high-schoolers charge that schools don’t seem to care

TIRED OF RACISM<br>Willie Hyman (standing at center), president of the Butte Community Coalition, meets with aggrieved students and parents at an Oroville church.

Willie Hyman (standing at center), president of the Butte Community Coalition, meets with aggrieved students and parents at an Oroville church.

Photo By Ginger McGuire

Cassie Thomas, an African-American student at Oroville’s Las Plumas High School, said her sense of freedom has been stolen. The petite 15-year-old is proud of her ethnicity and her culture, but she is angry, too.

Thomas and her friends regularly walked five minutes back and forth from campus to Robertson’s Market for lunch. That all stopped this year when, the teens allege, they were confronted by another group of students driving pickup trucks and shouting racial insults like “Get out of the way, you nigger,” all while honking their horn and nearly running them off the road.

“They drive big, red trucks … with Confederate flags,” said Leighton Jenkins, a 15-year-old student at Las Plumas. “They have music that talks about killing ‘niggers.’ I’ve been called the ‘N’ word countless times.

“It makes me feel so angry,” he continued. “It makes me want to jump over the desk and beat them. … But I’m not like that.”

Since the incident was reported to school officials in September, the truck harassment has not been repeated. Parents say those students no longer park in front of the school, waiting for their kids.

However, the African American students stopped walking to the market at lunchtime, and go only when they can find a ride. Or they choose a different direction to walk.

The teens and a group of parents met with the anti-racism group Butte Community Coalition on Saturday (Sept. 27) at Oro-Vista Baptist Church to discuss the prejudice they say they are experiencing in the schools, and how to come together to stop discrimination.

Willie Hyman, president of the Chico-based coalition, said he is filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, along with other organizations and legal departments.

Overall, the message at the meeting was the importance of documenting alleged incidents, reporting them immediately and that “it’s OK to call 911 if you are being threatened.”

The students say they also encounter prejudice in school, with classmates calling them names such as “nigger” or “porch monkey.” A 17-year-old Prospect High School student described an incident last year when he came home after school, checked his mailbox and found a swastika.

“It’s hard,” Cassie Thomas said, “because you feel you don’t have the freedom you are supposed to have. It’s sad that everyone can’t look at each other as equal.”

One Las Plumas student and his mother attended the meeting to discuss the student’s recent five-day suspension following an altercation with a white student on campus. The boy’s mother says three of her son’s friends were also suspended, but the Caucasian student was not disciplined.

School officials cannot comment on the circumstances of any suspensions or expulsions for confidentiality reasons. Las Plumas Principal Sandy Dovell also would not comment on the alleged truck harassment incident earlier this year, except to say she was aware of an “incident” involving two groups of students in September and that it was investigated.

“That’s a surprise to me—I’m not aware of any students who feel this way,” Dovell responded when asked to comment on the students’ statements. “I know we’ve had some incidents. Whenever you have a variety of students, you always have some conflicts with different student groups. … We have issues between students, but I think we do a good job with that, when they are reported.”

She doesn’t think Las Plumas’ racial issues are different than other schools', or that “there is any place that doesn’t have some sort of racial conflicts.”

Kevin Garibaldi agrees. He’s an African-American social-sciences instructor who also serves as the advisor to the Black Student Union, which has about 10 full-time members. Black students comprise less than 10 percent of the school’s population.

Garibaldi said the BSU is organizing an awareness walk Oct. 10 to march against racism. It is also organizing Respect Days, a school-wide event to create awareness about racial prejudice, as well as overall discrimination against various ethnicities or groups of students.

Dovell said the school offers counseling and anger management classes to students.

Needless to say, perhaps, the black parents had a less sanguine view of the school’s efforts.

At the meeting, Cassie’s mother, Waana Thomas, said she doesn’t think the school is much concerned with the racial harassment her daughter encounters. Another parent, Monica Jenkins, said an assistant principal’s advice on how to avoid the students driving in their trucks was to keep her son on campus, even though the high school has an open campus. That was an abuse of her son’s freedom, Jenkins said. “He should be able to go wherever he wants, within reason.”

Dovell said she was not aware of the conversation, nor would she comment about the allegation. Attempts to reach the school’s two assistant principals were unsuccessful, and Dovell said they too would not comment.

“I think our school is segregated, not in a big way, but some of the teachers turn a blind eye,” said Herman Hodnett, the Las Plumas student who was recently suspended. “I get mad, but I’m used to it.”

That sense of adaptation to discrimination is a reaction Brenda Harris, an Oroville Union High School District trustee, does not want to encourage. Harris, an African-American woman and 1952 Oroville High School graduate, attended the meeting with the students to observe. She said racism has always been a part of Oroville.

“At that time [when she was in high school], it was not as obvious, not as blatant,” she said. “No one tried running us over on the road or anything, but it’s always there. Racism is alive and well, and it’s not going to go to sleep anytime soon.”

She said the most important thing parents and students need to do is get proper documentation to create paper trails to prove discrimination, rather than the “he said, she said” situation it has become.

Harris said some teachers in the district hear students use racial slurs and may not want to be caught in the middle. But the most important issue is that “we’ve got kids not wanting to go to school, and we can’t have it. I can’t have it.”

Hyman said the coalition is asking the Office for Civil Rights to enforce an agreement negotiated between the coalition, the U.S. Justice Department, the Oroville Unified School District, and Legal Services of Northern California regarding the hiring of black teachers, administrators and support personnel. He is also looking into putting the district on federal watch.