If the students of Salinas Union High School District someday run the world, the future is in good hands.
I might not have thought that a few days ago, when Salinas High School made the news because of a racist display. A student made an Instagram account for a baby Black doll they named Shaniqua, intermittently called Shaniggua, and then posted photos of white and Latino students posing with that doll. The images ranged in degrees of violence and mockery; they included feet stomping on the doll and comments with the N-word. On Friday night, Aug. 20, the images came to include kids smiling outside of an ambulance carrying a Black football player from North Salinas High School who was injured.
That player is Charles Sanders. He spoke at an SUHSD board meeting Tuesday, Aug. 24, about seeing two SHS students, posing and smiling, while he was driven away from the jamboree game. At the time he didn’t fully understand the scope of what was happening – he just knew it was unsportsmanlike. It was only later that he realized it was part of a prolonged racist display. “To think this was supposed to be a joke is ridiculous,” Sanders said. “We are reliving history because it’s not being taught.”
He is one of the SUHSD students who make me feel good about the future. He was among dozens of students and parents whose anger overflowed when they spoke during the meeting. The board scrapped their entire scheduled agenda, instead devoting the night to public comment, which lasted four hours.
The board has already indicated they want to listen. Da’ja Robinson, speaking on behalf of the Monterey County Black Caucus, read aloud excerpts of the board’s own Resolution #20-106, passed unanimously on Aug. 11, 2020, in support of Black Lives Matter: “The SUHSD board of trustees believes that racism and racial injustice have no place in our society… The SUHSD believes there is no place for hate speech.”
What became clear, however, as the voices of impassioned students filled the room, is that hate speech and racism are alarmingly prevalent in their daily lives. “It’s not just the Friday jamboree, it’s Monday when I go to school and hear the N-word in the hallway,” one student said. David Adams, a 1997 graduate of SUHSD, father of a seventh-grader and JV football coach, said nothing has changed since he was a student. “Shaniqua is my daughter,” he said, then motioned to the dozens of other Black families in the room: “There’s a lot of Shaniquas here.”
Those families are not going to tolerate this anymore. Students and parents called for accountability for the adults who allowed it to happen under their watch, and for the students involved. “If these students get away with it, what does that say about us as a community?” said Faith West, a junior at SHS.
One theme of the night was that there might be accountability, but only because Kimberly Mendoza, a student at Everett Alvarez High, took screenshots of the Instagram images and published them on TikTok.
To all of the grown-ups who have said some version of “kids will be kids,” you need only listen to the teens who spoke. They know exactly what this means, the history of violence and racism that leads to a doll paraded around like this. “This is high school,” said one girl. “This is not middle school, this is not elementary school. You guys know what you are doing.”
The board meeting served as an emotional outpouring. What’s next is going to be less emotional and more bureaucratic. Administrators were expected to complete their investigation of students involved by Aug. 25, and outside legal counsel has been tapped to investigate staff, which is expected to take a week. Then the board will reconvene for a to-be-scheduled emergency meeting and determine next steps, which include contracting with an outside entity “to conduct a school-based climate and culture assessment at Salinas High School,” said Superintendent Dan Burns.
“There are students that are proud of their school,” Burns said. “They don’t want to be defined by one incident only. They want to repair and rebuild.”
If we trust those students in their wisdom to guide us, I am certain that we will repair and we will build something better than what we had before.