Discipline meted out in racial incident, Laguna Beach High official says

LA Times/Daily Pilot Jan 24, 2o17

By Bryce Alderton Contact Reporter

Laguna Beach High School officials say they have taken disciplinary steps toward five students who they believe were involved in throwing a watermelon outside the home of a black student — an incident the victim’s parents have labeled a hate crime.

“Please be assured that school and [Laguna Beach Unified School District] officials responded immediately to the incident that occurred over winter break and we addressed this matter with significant and appropriate consequences for the students involved,” Principal Chris Herzfeld wrote in an email sent to parents last week.

He declined to provide details, saying he cannot discuss disciplinary matters.
Laguna Beach police are investigating the incident and could forward the case to the Orange County district attorney’s office, Sgt. Tim Kleiser wrote in an email.
“We’ve got a lot of support from people with letters, emails, stopping us on the street,” Maurice Possley, the victim’s father, said Monday. “At this point, we’re looking to see how things play out.”

Possley and his wife, Cathleen Falsani, who are both white, said the family was preparing to eat dinner shortly before 9 p.m. Dec. 27 when Possley heard people yelling the name of their adopted son, Vasco.

Possley said he heard a thud as he neared the door and found shattered pieces of a watermelon outside. The parents traced the brand to a store in Laguna, where an employee said he remembered the juveniles who bought the fruit. Meanwhile, a neighbor’s security camera captured footage of the truck believed to be the youths’ vehicle.

Falsani wrote about the encounter, and the moments immediately following, on her website.

“When [the police officer] left, my husband cleaned up the mess outside, while Vasco retreated to his room to write in his journal,” Falsani said in the post. “He said he wanted to be left alone, which was unusual. He was angry in his quiet way, but he wasn’t scared. If that had been the perpetrators’ goal, they failed.

This montage of photos shows shattered pieces of watermelon outside a Laguna Beach family’s home. The parents say their adopted son, who is black, was the target of the Dec. 27 incident, which they have labeled a hate crime.  (Courtesy of Cathleen Falsani)

“More than anything, right after the incident, my son’s heart was troubled. ‘I don’t understand why anyone would hate me like that,’ he said.

“There were no words of explanation I could offer. I told him that I was sorry, that he was safe, and that I loved him. I wanted to scream and throw up, quaking with rage.”

This was not the first time Vasco was targeted, wrote Falsani, who said she moved with her husband and son from the Chicago area to “this idyllic place” in 2009.

“The first happened last spring in a classroom at the high school where three students made remarks to our son that were, he and we felt, racist,” her post reads. “Words were exchanged. Video clips from ‘Django Unchained’ and ‘Captain Phillips’ were thrust in his face in a classroom where a substitute teacher had lost control. When that happened, we were outraged. The school handled it swiftly. Parents were notified and punishment was doled out internally.”

In a follow-up phone call, Falsani said Vasco reported the encounter to a faculty member.

Laguna Beach High is planning several strategies to “build a positive student culture” at the school “in which students treat other with respect, dignity and kindness,” Herzfeld’s email said.

Staff from the nonprofit OC Human Relations met with small groups of students in the school library at lunch last week to discuss developing an inclusive and respectful climate on the campus and in the community.

Herzfeld met with staff members, and separately with representatives of student groups including the Associated Student Body, to hear concerns and field questions, according to the email.

Herzfeld urged parents to contact the school if they feel their child has been bullied or harassed.

Residents also can report possible hate crimes to OC Human Relations at (714) 480-6570 or ochumanrelations.org.

“You probably would like to know, as so many people of good will and faith have asked in recent days, how Vasco has handled all of this,” Falsani wrote. “Remarkably well. In fact, I’d like to be more like my son when I grow up.

“Vasco has deep reserves of peace and calmness that are rare in any human, no matter age or life experience. He’s not perfect. He’s a kid. But he has navigated these fraught waters with characteristic grace and thoughtfulness.”

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