The Indy, January 21, 2017

by Marilynn Young

Laguna Beach High School suspended five students this week in the wake of a racially motivated attack against another student even as administrators took steps to start discussions about diversity and inclusiveness, beginning with meetings this week with representatives from O.C. Human Relations.

The five teens involved, who are not identified because they are minors, will face discipline “within the limits of our jurisdiction,” school administrators said in a statement.

We take this very seriously; we are not taking this lightly,” said Athletic Director Lance Neal. “This is a top priority. This is about the well-being of our students.” He said the students involved neither attended class nor participated this week in team sports.

According to the 2016-17 LBHS school policies and procedures, students who engage in harassment or bullying are subject to discipline including counseling, suspensions or expulsion.

The 17-year-old victim’s father, Maurice Possley, contacted Orange County Human Relations, a quasi-public agency that provides violence and conflict resolution programs in communities countywide, director Norma Lopez said.

She said a meeting to discuss what she described as a hate crime took place this week and involved the families of all the students, Police Chief Laura Farinella, school Superintendent Jason Viloria, City Manager John Pietig and LBHS Principal Chris Herzfeld.

Lopez said the hurling of a watermelon and shouting of racial epithets that occurred Dec. 27 at the home of a black student is considered a hate crime because property was defaced during the attack, according to criteria established by Orange County Human Relations. A criminal investigation underway is nearly complete and later this week or next will be taken to prosecutors, who ultimately decide if charges are filed, Sgt. Tim Kleiser said. None of the students involved have yet been charged or arrested, he said.

In an interview, the parents of Vasco Possley called on the community to stand against hateful acts against people because of sexual orientation, ethnicity or religion. “Let this be a teachable moment for our community,” Possley and Cathleen Falsani said in a statement. “We are known as a community that not only ‘tolerates’ diversity and individuality but embraces it.”

Efforts to reach the parents of the students involved were unsuccessful. Of the four families reached, two declined to comment and two did not respond to calls seeking comment.

In response to racially charged events, OC Human Relations’ staff suggest schools provide a private space for students to confidentially share their feelings and to encourage discussions about diversity, inclusivity and respect, said Lopez, who noted that 39 hate incidents and eight hate crimes have been documented countywide since November.

The nonprofit’s staff will meet this week with small groups of students in the school library at lunch to talk about ways to develop an inclusive and respectful climate on the campus and in the community, said Herzfeld, who also issued a statement to parents. “We will keep you updated on our continuing efforts to build a positive student culture at LBHS in which students treat each other with respect, dignity and kindness. This includes supporting those who are feeling harassed or bullied. If your son or daughter shares information with you that indicates that he or she may be a victim of harassment or bullying, I urge you to reach out to me or any school administrator so that we may support your child and address such behavior. If you need to report a possible hate crime that occurred,  you may file a report with OCHR at 714-480-6570 or at the website”

Herzfeld said other opportunities to train staff, students and athletes are planned, including several visits over the next year by Keith Hawkins, an international motivational speaker on school climate.