Facing Consequences

About 300 people attended the SUHSD board meeting on Aug. 24, and students cheered each other on for denouncing racism from overflow seating outside.

Jayden Wilson is the kind of high school student who lives and breathes school spirit. A senior at Salinas High School, she is executive treasurer of the Associated Student Body, on which she has served for four years. She was at the jamboree on Friday night, Aug. 20, because she was volunteering at the event via ASB, and she was working the student section.

Some time during the event, someone handed her a baby doll. She says she held it for a moment and smiled. She thought nothing of it until the next night, around 9pm, when a fellow ASB officer sent her a text to ask if she was involved.

Wilson was confused, and only then began to piece together that her photo had become part of a parade of racist images, captured by Kimberly Mendoza, a senior at Everett Alvarez High School, who made a video to expose the racist conduct surrounding the doll. The doll is Black, and an Instagram account set up on the doll’s behalf – using the name Shaniqua, sometimes Shaniggua – showed the doll in the arms of various students, most of them white and Latino. The Instagram account, @shaniqua.shs, seemed to chronicle a series of racist stereotypes – the doll naked and wearing an ankle monitor, the doll laid on a dummy of a woman in labor with a nasty comment about its father, the doll stomped on.

When Wilson held the doll, she says it wasn’t yet defaced or manipulated.

“I feel like I’m being set up,” she says. “I didn’t think that would turn into this at all. The way it looked at the moment, it didn’t look derogatory or anything. It was taken from me and moved on, so I moved on.”

But Wilson, and the rest of the SHS and broader Salinas Union High School District community, cannot move on, at least not yet.

When the SUHSD board met on Aug. 24, there was outcry from students and parents calling for accountability. Two days later, the district announced it had meted out punishment against the students deemed responsible, amid an ongoing investigation.

It is difficult to get details because students’ disciplinary records are confidential, but a source confirmed to the Weekly that, amid roughly 30 students pictured on the offending account, four had been punished – three were suspended, and one was removed from the cheerleading squad.

But here’s a puzzling piece of that first step in disciplining students who allegedly engaged in a racist act: The cheerleader is white, while two of the students suspended are Latino, and one is Black. That one Black student is Wilson.

“The district did a disservice when their first punitive action was targeted to a minority,” says Wilson’s aunt, Debra Wilson. “They’re throwing it back at us to say, ‘look who did it.’ They are attempting to use minority involvement to diminish or dilute the narrative of racism.”

While racism is far more complex than white and Black, Jayden and her family maintain her involvement was limited to that one fleeting photo. Her mom, Sylvia Wilson, says Principal Elizabeth Duethman described her involvement as the “lowest level” in a meeting. Sylvia wouldn’t mind so much if everyone pictured faced the same penalty, or if it had all rolled out at once, but the process leaves Jayden feeling targeted.

She was suspended for one day for “disruption,” removed from the ASB for two weeks and directed to attend two Saturdays of diversity training.

Beyond that, she says she has been harassed by her peers, including racial slurs in the hallway. “She is being harassed, bullied, threatened, pushed,” Sylvia says.

SUHSD spokesperson Marcos Cabrera says no student should be harassed whatever their involvement, and adds any further incidents will be investigated. “Parents feeling like the reactions are unjust are more than welcome to talk to our administrators,” he says. “We are not trying to single out anyone here, we are interested in learning the truth and hearing people out. We don’t want any family to feel like we are perpetuating racism.”

In a letter to the campus community dated Aug. 27, one day after Wilson was suspended and the district announced its first disciplinary actions, Duethman wrote, “We are nearing the end of our investigation into the racist actions exhibited in disturbing photos and videos recently circulated on social media. Consequences have been administered to students and families have been notified. There were many students involved, at varying levels of responsibility.” (She also encourages any students who are experiencing harassment to report it, anonymously if they wish, by texting 831-296-0067.)

SUHSD officials decline to speak further about the original incident or details of discipline, but confirm that as of Aug. 31, more students have been suspended. No official announcement, however, has been made, and the number of students has not been released.

That’s despite the Aug. 26 announcement that read: “We understand that the public is seeking more answers about all of the involved parties and the punishments doled out. We will update the public directly when there is new information to report.”

Charles Sanders is a senior at North Salinas High and a football player who was injured during the jamboree, and left the field in an ambulance. He is also Black. Two students, including the ASB president, were photographed posing with the doll in front of the ambulance as it drove away. He thinks students who participated most likely did so “just to be funny and accepted.”

“Why is my culture only being taught as a disciplinary action?” Sanders says. “Why are we not learning it just because we need to learn it? I feel like that’s the main reason why this is happening, because history is re-living itself because we’re not teaching it.”

Examining that history is expected be part of the district’s response, which includes contracting with a yet-to-be-determined third party “to conduct a school-based climate and culture assessment at SHS,” Superintendent Dan Burns told the board Aug. 24. (A third party to teach the Saturday diversity sessions also remains TBD.) The Wilson family – Jayden’s mom, Sylvia, is Mexican-American and her dad, Curtis, is Black – say they want to know who is contracted to teach those classes and what curriculum they will use, but no information yet has been provided.

For Jayden Wilson, who plans to appeal her suspension, the takeaway so far is this: “My school spirit was taken for granted. Maybe I need to dial it back.”

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