“Shaniqua is a symbol of hatred.” “I am that doll.” “Shaniqua is my daughter.”

These are among the emotionally charged comments of students and parents Tuesday night, Aug. 24, at the Salinas Union High School District board meeting. 

For nearly four hours, students, parents, teachers and members of the community expressed their concerns, their fears, and their recent or past experiences facing racism on school grounds. Students spoke passionately and powerfully and called on their school and school district leaders to take action. 

Their words were fueled by a racist incident involving a Black baby doll that was named Shaniqua then caricatured, paraded around as a prop in photos with white and Latino students, and stomped on in photos focumented on an Instagram account. The doll was passed around by students of Salinas High School during the jamboree on Friday night, Aug. 20.

The Instagram account @shaniqua.shs has since been made private and has zero posts and followers. But not before Kimberly Mendoza, a student at Everett Alvarez High, captured screen shots of the account to reveal the racist behavior and posted her video to various social media platforms, including TikTok. 

“We know racism isn't a joke. And to see that, honestly, was just embarrassing,” Mendoza says.

The incident quickly spread, drawing hundreds of people to the regularly scheduled SUHSD board meeting. The board scrapped their agenda entirely, instead devoting the entire night to public comment, first from kids, then adults. 

“The board is gravely concerned and wants our community to know that we are united in condemning this reprehensible behavior,” said Phillip Tabera, SUHSD board president.

“Kids will be kids. This is not an acceptable excuse for the actions that have ramifications or collateral damage far beyond what we see in the repulsive images,” Superintendent Dan Burns said.

The first student to speak was Sienna Zuniga, who said Salinas High Principal Elizabeth Duethman chose her words poorly when she described some decorations at the jamboree as “a border wall.”

“These portraits of words combined with that evening's actions gave the impression of an insensitive lack of respect for people's cultures and struggles,” Zuniga said.  She was one of many to tell the board and the public that it’s not uncommon—either at the jamboree on Friday night, or other times—to hear racial slurs, including against Latino students, and that when she heard such slurs at the jamboree, staff did not intervene. 

Valeria Hernandez Melchor, a senior at SHS, said racism is common at her school. “Racism is normal in Salinas High School,” she said. “This time there is so much evidence you can not ignore it, you cannot deny it and you cannot sweep it under the rug.”

Parents said the actions of the students who created the account were no accident. “Do you know what we have to go through as parents to find Black baby dolls? I have to order them online,” said Tamisha Smith, a teacher at SUHSD and mom of four. “You use dolls as play to teach them empathy.” 

Parents and students demanded students and staff involved to be expelled and fired. 

“Our kids are in anguish. They're scared, they're hurt, they're frustrated, they're constrained, and they feel hopeless,” said Debra Wilson, a mom and SHS graduate. “Do you know what fear does? Fear incites violence. That's what fear does."

“I am not interested in another kumbaya…We want penalization, we want justice.” 

Other students and parents said this racist incident shows the need for having ethic studies classes in the curriculum. “There's this claim that it will cause racial, racial division when the division has always been there. Only through uncomfortable conversations will we be able to better divide and dismantle systematic racism,” said Hernandez Melchor. 

Over 2,000 people watched the meeting on YouTube and more than 300 were at SUHSD’s office, more than could fit inside. Most of them spent most of the night in the parking lot where they cheered and clapped when the speakers came out of the meeting room. (The video on YouTube now has 27,000 views.) 

The investigation is still ongoing. Students who created the account or brought the doll on campus will face consequences, Burns said including, being removed from extracurricular activities (including athletics and Associated Student Body) and will attend restorative justice and healing sessions. Those who were photographed with the doll will be sanctioned as well. 

Burns announced the investigation into students involved is expected to wrap as early as today, Aug. 25. An outside legal entity has been retained to investigate staff, expected to take about a week. During that time, SHS Principal Elizabeth Duethman will not be on campus, Burns said. 

The board will reconvene for an emergency meeting to discuss next steps after the outside investigation is complete. 

In a letter to the SHS campus community on Aug. 24, Duethman wrote what appears to be an acknowledgment of students’ social media commentary about her border remark: “I categorically deny the accusation. It is not in my character to say such a horrible, discriminatory thing…It saddens me to think a student would believe such a thing about me.”

Burns announced additional measures the district will implement: training for ASB members, coaches, and student athletes focusing on implicit bias, healing and empathy and consequences of their actions; contracting with a community partner for a school-based climate and culture assessment; and hire a coordinador of climate and culture to focus on diversity and equity, who would review policies in the district. 

 

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