SCV NEWSMAKERS OF THE WEEK:
Chair, City of Santa Clarita's Human Relations Forum
Member, Wm. S. Hart Union High School District Board
Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor
Sunday, March 13, 2005
(Television interview conducted March 8, 2005)
"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmakers are Dianna Boone, chairwoman of the city of Santa Clarita's Human Relations Forum; and Gloria Mercado-Fortine, member of the William S. Hart Union High School District's governing board. The interview was conducted Tuesday. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Is Santa Clarita the hotbed of racism one might assume it is from the recent media attention?
Boone: Racism is a problem throughout the United States and in many portions of the world. Santa Clarita is not a hotbed of racism, but we do have racial incidents and some hate crime.
What's different about Santa Clarita is that we've always been proactive about dealing with issues such as racism and tolerance. In fact, in 1994, when there was a hate incident on the Canyon High campus, the teachers and students came to the City Council and talked about the problem and their concern, and the City Council then formed the Human Relations Forum in response to that.
The Human Relations Forum does a lot of educational programs to assist with tolerance and understanding.
Signal: If in 1994 the problem was at a high school campus, and the problems we're hearing about this year are on a high school campus, is racism specific to our high schools?
Mercado-Fortine: No, it isn't specific to our high schools. Things do occur on the high school campus, but there are incidents that are in our community. But it's not exclusive to our community. These hate-motivated incidents and hate crimes exist throughout the state, in other communities and across the nation, as we've seen.
We know that there have been race riots in different districts, in other parts of our state and across the nation, and the schools are trying to get a handle on it.
Signal: Why do you suppose the schools are where we're hearing about these incidents, as opposed to the shopping mall or other places where people congregate?
Mercado-Fortine: Kids spend a lot of time at school. Next to the home, schools are the second home for our children, our students. That's where we bring a diverse student population.
Students need to learn to get along with others; they need to learn to get along with others; they need to tolerate and accept differences. Some of those things, in terms of programs, are things that we as a school district need to address.
Signal: What do you say to people who contend there's no racism here?
Boone: It's kind of like saying we don't have graffiti here. Just because you haven't seen it, doesn't mean we don't have it. We certainly have racism in Santa Clarita, because we have all kinds of people in Santa Clarita people who are tolerant, and people who are not...
What I'm hoping comes from the focus on racism in Santa Clarita is a collective, united effort by different agencies to deal with this community issue so that we can continue to address it proactively in a really multifaceted approach.
This is an opportunity for more change, an opportunity to educate on a lot of different levels.
Signal: Does the Human Relations Forum work with the victims? Who is the Forum?
Boone: The people on the Human Relations Forum are actually volunteers in the community who have come together to make a difference in Santa Clarita to address racism and tolerance, basically through educational programs. Some people on the Forum have had pain in their lives due to various intolerance, but not everyone.
Signal: We had Ku Klux Klan members making noise in the SCV in the 1960s and cross burnings in the 1980s. Gloria, you grew up in this valley and went to Hart; do you see racism having changed much?
Mercado-Fortine: I think it's always been there. As a person of color, I can remember a counselor telling me, when I went in to ask about college information, not to pursue that because Mexican girls usually got married, got pregnant, and that was it so we're a poor investment.
Those types of things are very, very hurtful. And that, in a sense, is discrimination is, it could be said, is a hate-type of bias. So, there have been incidents in our community, and now I think we see more of it. But this is everywhere, not just in our community, not just in our schools.
Specific to Santa Clarita, we are becoming a more diverse population. We see it everywhere. And obviously we're going to see it in our schools. We have to give our students the tools and our staff, our teachers, our counselors, everyone the tools so that they can give guidance to our students so that we have better intergroup relations. That's going to be a priority for our district.
Signal: What are some of the tools? Is diversity training enough, or do you advocate spending more money on arts programs and other things that bring kids together in productive ways?
Mercado-Fortine: That could be part of it. I don't think we do enough training
Signal: Training of teachers?
Mercado-Fortine: Training across the board. We need to do training with our administrators, with our teachers, with our counselors, with our students. And that is not just a one-shot deal, but it is training that it is ongoing.
If you just look at our district and the number of new teachers that we've hired and it's well over 50 percent they're all new to our area. Because of this turnover, we need to continue those training programs. And it has to be part of our culture. That's a big tool, training, and to really sensitize everyone in terms of discrimination and racism.
Signal: Is the district doing anything to hire teachers from across ethnic and racial lines?
Mercado-Fortine: I think we're beginning to do that. That has been an issue that I've brought to the superintendent and to the board, in terms of looking at diversity and celebrating our diversity the issue of recruitment.
In fact, at one of our ad-hoc committee meetings, the first one, we actually had parents who said, "You really do need to hire more diverse staff that reflect our student body so that students feel comfortable." Once you put a principal or an assistant principal or a counselor or a teacher up there as a role model, you're really sending the message that we accept you, we accept everyone and, "Look, we have these individuals who are there, who are teaching you." I think that sends a very positive message to our students.
Signal: Since 1990, the SCV's white population is down from 73 percent to 69 percent; the Latino population has grown from 15 percent to 21 percent; the Asian population has reached 6 percent; but the black population has held steady at about 2 percent. As the Latino and Asian populations grow, are you seeing racism manifesting itself differently?
Boone: I think people in the community some people embrace change, and as we have changed, there are others who have considered this more of a white community and they're uncomfortable seeing more people of color. Sometimes it's not so much prejudice as much as they're not used to it.
In fact, we've had kids from our Community Center who are Hispanic go to a place where people gather I don't want to say the particular venue and had Caucasians ask them what they're doing there. Because they're not used to seeing our Hispanic kids in that venue. That can be really hurtful, and yet maybe the person meant it because they're just not used to it.
A lot of our programs that we need for education, for understanding, are so that people understand that even though this is different, you really need to be sensitive in how we are, interpersonally. I think that's why we have the Community Center; we built a bridge into our Hispanic portion of our populace in Newhall; we wanted to hear from the Hispanic portion of our populace because they weren't really represented at City Hall. We've been successful in building that bridge, and we need to continue to build bridges.
Signal: Is racism the right question? With high school kids, is it more a problem of kids just being mean?
Boone: The VIP group, which is Visions In Progress that's a group of teens who have different racial backgrounds and they're from different high schools, and that group is facilitated out of (the city's) Community Services Division they talked about this issue last week. They do feel that there are issues of racism, but that it's more a general issue of intolerance whether it be body size, or haves and have-nots, or the color of someone's skin that, generally, we need to address intolerance.
Signal: We're a fairly well educated valley with a median income of $73,000, versus the Los Angeles County average of about $46,000. Wouldn't you think there would be less racism here?
Mercado-Fortine: I think what Dianna said is correct I mean, it's an issue of just intolerance.
Also, in Santa Clarita, we have not been that diverse. (When I) grew up here, ... we had small groups of Latinos and African American communities; they were pretty much in certain parts of our valley. But now it's different. We're growing. We've grown so much. We've just expanded beyond those two major groups. We have everyone represented in our valley now.
And, there are some things that (have) come up. Certainly, the 9-11 attack. There was a real backlash against people from the Middle East.
Signal: Here in this valley?
Mercado-Fortine: In this valley and everywhere, across the nation. And you heard those comments. And we have the immigration issue. That, again, is another backlash against people who are Hispanic. Because some individuals want to put everybody in one group. Sometimes, the things that happen within our society, within our country it's a reaction to some of these things that are occurring.
Boone: That's why it's so important that people of different backgrounds experience each other, whether it's through playing sports or though the arts or whatever it is. It's really important. That's what breaks down barriers. When people of different backgrounds get around people who are different from them, the understanding is facilitated.
Signal: What is the city doing to break down those barriers?
Boone: Well, through the Human Relations Forum, we have a program called Operation US, that was started by two Hart district teachers, Gary Mast and Mike Ballard, and that's a wonderful program. They created the program, and it's been featured at a teacher state conference before. They take high school students and they train them in how to be facilitators of a diversity program. Those high schoolers then have to deal with all of their issues in order to become effective facilitators. Then the high school students go to sixth-grade assemblies and they teach sixth graders, in an experiential learning manner, all about diversity and tolerance.
What's wonderful is, the sixth graders receive that well from high school students. Right now there's an interest in expanding it to the junior high level and taking it to lower grades at the elementary schools.
Signal: How do you reach parents?
Boone: There's a number of ways. One of them, we offered the Color of Fear program; that's a program where you take people of diverse backgrounds and you bring them into a room and you have them talk about what it feels like to be them. ... We have offered that before; we can offer that again.
Parents you can also reach through workshops, through speakers, through (public service announcements). Also, I know in the juvenile justice (system) they have a program called JOIN, and they've also had JOLT. These programs are designed to teach first-time offenders, as well as their parents, about diversity and tolerance.
Signal: How does our valley compare to other places in terms of reported hate crimes?
Boone: Reported hate crimes in our valley are not high at all. They're actually quite low. The sheriff's have the statistics on that, but the Human Relations Forum has a program that supports victims of hate crime, and so we're aware when that happens.
A sheriff's representative contacts the victims and offers them letters of support if they would like that. They can remain anonymous. Then we facilitate getting those letters so that the person doesn't feel so isolated, like that is a pervasive opinion throughout Santa Clarita. They need to know that there are a lot of people who support them and abhor what they've actually experienced.
Signal: Were the perpetrators at Valencia High School prosecuted?
Mercado-Fortine: Not that I am aware of. And we in the school district need to probably do a better job in terms of tracking the hate incidents. Hate crimes obviously it's a crime, and so the police are going to be involved in that; hate incidents we may not know about them.
Right now, we're looking at setting up a uniform complaint procedure where students who feel that they're being discriminated (against), (when) there's been a hate incident, that they can report that to an identified person there on that campus, be it a complaint manager, whatever title we give that person. Not only for the student, but also for any adult who works on that campus, as well. Because we have classified staff, we have certificated staff, we have a whole community there. We are in the process of drawing up what those procedures are going to be, so that actually there's an avenue of how to report these hate incidents.
Signal: What happens when a student comes to a teacher or someone else on campus and says, "Johnny called me a name"?
Mercado-Fortine: Well, right now, I think that the teacher tries to do whatever they can to listen to the student, perhaps try to resolve it, perhaps share it with a counselor or an administrator. But it's quite open. It's whatever the judgment of that teacher or that individual is.
Signal: So there's not a strict procedure for handling a complaint the way, say, a sexual harassment complaint in the workplace would be handled?
Mercado-Fortine: We have a policy of zero tolerance, in terms of if there is anything that is racially motivated, but also it includes discrimination or any slurs or anything against the various groups, whether it's regarding sexual orientation, religious, racial, ethnic slurs, all of that.
However, within our district there is not a specific procedure of who, if there is a complaint, who gets that complaint? Is it recorded? Is it documented? Where does that go?
Signal: There is not?
Mercado-Fortine: There is not. Right now, that is a priority for us, to come up with that, and I know before too long, we will have that in place.
Signal: Is any kind of tracking being done at City Hall?
Boone: No, there isn't. We're not tracking that. But what I think is really excellent is that the Hart district created the ad-hoc committee, and that includes the city, that includes the community parents, administrators, teachers, students, sheriff's and through this ad-hoc committee, I think we're going to be able to assess the deficits in our community and then collectively address them. And this is great. Because we're not having the Human Relations Forum looking at it and then maybe the Interfaith Council looking at it in a separate way; we're going to collectively look at it. That makes us very powerful down the road, when we address this in a multifaceted approach.
Signal: Who serves on the ad-hoc committee?
Mercado-Fortine: As you know, we had quite a number of parents come to us at the November board meeting with concerns. At that point, listening to all the concerns, then the board made a motion to address this by creating this ad-hoc committee. That was one of the things we were going to do. This committee then had the charge of addressing racism, of making sure that we provided a safe campus, that we came up with programs and strategies and trainings for our schools.
That has taken off. We met for the first time Feb. 15 as a large committee, and anyone and everyone was invited. And now, on March 15, we will meet with the steering committee, a smaller group, who is bringing back all of the comments and suggestions from the larger group. And then we will hopefully begin to design a plan of action. This subcommittee is made up of the various groups of our community the city, the sheriff's, educators, parents, students, administrators, business so it really is very encompassing.
Signal: Have there been complaints that have gone to the U.S. Justice Department?
Mercado-Fortine: Yes, there has. There has been, and I think the first ones that we were aware of was back in February of 2003, (when) the initial ones were filed, and we were given a copy or made aware of that by the supervisor (Mike Antonovich) through the (county) Human Relations Commission. And again, we were again advised, later on, about four months ago, and then again two months ago when somebody wrote a letter again to various members the governor and the president and so forth.
I will say that we have had a lot of support from the supervisor's office. Immediately, 13 (or) 14 months ago, when we first heard of those complaints, he actually offered his assistance through the Human Relations Commission, in asking us if we needed any support. He has been with us all along, and recently, he has again told us that whatever resources he's able to provide, he will do that.
So we actually have the commissioners from the Los Angeles (County) Human Relations Commission working with us, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice. We have representatives on our committee, and they're there, helping us, kind of taking us through this, because they have a lot of experience working within the county of Los Angeles with issues of this nature and coming together and working with school districts.
Signal: At the November school board meeting, the complaints centered on Valencia High School; some parents said they wanted their kids to be transferred to Hart because they perceived fewer problems there. Is there a bigger problem on some campuses than others, or some parts of the city than others?
Mercado-Fortine: That is a difficult one. Just looking at what's going on, I guess the answer would be yes. But again, you will see these issues surface on many of our campuses, some more than others, and I think that that is what is happening at Valencia.
And it is not to say that we haven't had these issues in other schools. Take Hart High School. They're the oldest schools Placerita and Hart they always have dealt with a very diverse population. Issues have come up; they have addressed them. But then, what I've seen there is that they have a minority administrator, they have a minority counselor; they have staff and teachers, as well, that reflect their student population. And I think that is a good thing. That's one of the reasons why I think a recruitment plan is very important in the Hart district.
Signal: There are faculty members at Placerita and Hart who speak Spanish?
Mercado-Fortine: Yes. Oh, yes.
Signal: What about the other schools? Are there teachers and administrators to meet the language needs?
Mercado-Fortine: I think we need to continue to work on that. Again, with this recruitment plan that I hope will be a priority, I think we will be able to address those needs.
Signal: What can the community do to help?
Boone: I think the community can get involved through education, through the Interfaith Council; I think churches should be involved as well as, obviously, the educational system. But there are so many programs out there, and I think, as the Human Relations Forum, what I'd like to see us do is create a resource list of programs, speakers, workshops, all types of things that people and agencies can access to use in their business or in their synagogue, their church, or at their school, and put that on the city's Web site so that people can easily access the many resources that are out there.
Signal: For people who would feel intimidated to call the Sheriff's Department or the city and leave their name, is there a way to report a hate incident anonymously?
Boone: Yes, we have a reporting line (255-4929).
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.