In South OC’s Wealthy, Mostly White School District, Students of Color Tell Stories of Racism, Harassment and Inaction

Courtesy of Olivia Fu

Students and organizers rallied outside the Capistrano Unified School District building to protest racist environments across the south county district's K-12 schools.

At a high school tucked away in the hills of San Juan Capistrano, a grand staircase separates the upper level of the campus from the lower level.

During the school year, Latino students usually fill the lunch tables downstairs, while mostly white students and others sit upstairs.

San Juan Hills High School alum Olivia Fu — now a junior at Stanford University — remembers training to be a member of the school’s student leadership program, “Link Crew,” when a senior member, giving a tour of the campus, pointed to the tables near the bottom of the stairs and said “that’s where the beaners sit.”

Stories like hers have stormed social media with a popular Instagram account she helped create to bring light to systemic racism that she and other students say is rotting the Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD), Orange County’s second largest school district that spans some of the wealthiest — and whitest — neighborhoods in the south.

On Wednesday night, the uproar prompted the CUSD school board’s trustees to acknowledge the problem, adopting a resolution statement denouncing racism and discrimination across the district. Not one board member during the meeting disputed the existence of a widespread issue in the schools.

Yet dozens of public speakers at the meeting — some of them teachers and alumni, and most of them young high schoolers — said real solutions will require more than words.

While students and community organizers held a rally outside the district building during the meeting, public speakers called on the school board to rethink the district’s curriculum, required readings and courses, disciplinary policies, and hiring practices for non-white teachers as ways to ensure that students of color in the district feel safer while others are taught tolerance through their exposure to new perspectives and world views.

Others also pointed to the possibility of an ethnic studies course for the district’s schools. This month, Santa Ana Unified School District became the first district in the county to establish such a requirement.

“Actions will speak way louder than words right now,” said San Juan Hills graduate Vanessa Rodriguez during the meeting’s public comment portion, who was the first Latina president of the school’s Associated Students Body (ASB). 

Solei Sarmiento, another San Juan Hills alum who now goes to Berkeley, remembers finding a paper slip note that read “Border Patrol” on a dirt trail extending from the back of campus during cross country practice. Many Latino students take the trail home after school.

“I took it and gave it to the coach – I don’t know if he did anything, and never heard any announcement made by the school,” Sarmiento said in an interview over web chat earlier in the day Wednesday. “It was just another instance of, ‘what is the school doing when kids are reporting this?’”

Esther Mafouta March, now at Columbia University, remembers being the only Black girl in her class at San Clemente High School when her environmental science teacher used the N-word while telling a story.

Courtesy of Kurt To

Demonstrators rally outside the Capistrano Unified School District building on Wednesday, June 24, 2020.

“I was shocked – I’m just sitting there like, OK — I was heated,” Mafouta March said in a phone interview before the school board meeting. After class, she said she went up to the teacher and asked her to refrain from using the slur, reasoning she didn’t want her peers to be encouraged to refer to her with it.

Mafouta March recalls the teacher responding, “OK, I’m sorry, how would you like to be called?” 

“And I was like, ‘Black is just fine.’” The teacher, she said, was at one point recognized as teacher of the year.

Fu said that while the protests earlier this month were underway in the furthest stretches of south county like San Clemente, Rancho Santa Margarita, and Ladera Ranch, “I noticed that I had not heard anything from the school district that spans this area.”

“In my experience in CUSD, there was so much racism and it was one of the things that stood out in my education, and it was normalized,” Fu said. “I thought it was unacceptable that a place with such a huge problem with racism was staying silent on the issue, and ignoring any calls for change.”

With the help of Sarmiento, Mafouta March, and other students from across the district, Fu created an Instagram account that quickly turned into an outlet for current and former students at CUSD schools to tell similar stories — and prompted uproar all over social media.

Their Instagram account, @cusdagainstracism, has become a platform where mostly anonymous students and parents sound off on their own stories, such as one out of Bernice Ayer Middle School, where someone who identified themselves as a parent wrote: “a group of white students marched around a table of Hispanic students chanting ‘Build the Wall! Build the Wall!’”

Fu describes the Instagram account as a coalition with student representatives from every school in the district.

During the public comment portion of Wednesday’s school board meeting, Aliso Niguel High School graduate Marissa Quezada called for a number of reforms to the district’s curriculum, noting that while she was in school, a great majority of required literature readings were written by white men.

Not only would a diversified slate of required readings be beneficial for students of color at the schools to “see themselves represented in the curriculum,” but it would also benefit white students to be exposed to other cultural experiences, perspectives and world views.

Quezada also called for the district to incorporate an ethnic studies course — pointing at the Santa Ana Unified School District, which adopted the course in the midst of this month’s protests and discussion on racial injustice.

District spokesman Ryan Burris, in an emailed response to Voice of OC inquiries earlier in the day Wednesday, called the resolution an “important step in our continued work to foster a culture of acceptance and inclusion in CUSD. But, this is not the last step.” 

“We are committed to working with our students, in partnership with our Cultural Proficiency Task Force which was established last year, to identify and implement specific actions to support all students and families. We plan to hold a Board workshop on this topic in the Fall to report our progress and next steps,” he added.

San Clemente High School teacher Katie Bennet, one member of the task force, said there’s a greater need for transparency on her board’s activities and “intensify the work we’ve been doing to diversify our curriculum.”

Before the school board unanimously approved the resolution, the board’s Vice President Martha McNicholas rejected any notion that racism was being taught at school.

“We aren’t teaching racism in our schools. I don’t believe we are, but you’re right — we can do more to prevent it. But it also starts in the home, and what our parents teach their children,” McNicholas said before voting on the resolution.

That sentiment didn’t track across the board, with Trustee Gila Jones reading an email from one white alumnus of the district recounting a recurring theme of “not only silencing Black voices in curricula, but also racist actions” by teachers, who, among other things, “enforced a racist standard of beauty” with dress codes.

School Board President Jim Reardon said that while there is a “systemic problem” in education, he placed the problem largely on teachers’ unions.

“Organized labor representatives need to take some responsibility for the behavior of its membership … there are people working in this school district who should have been taken out a long time ago,” he said. 

None of the board trustees made any public commitments to follow through on the demands made by some on Wednesday night for an ethnic studies program, though they did express a desire for more transparency from the cultural proficiency task force that’s supposed to be looking at ways to change teacher hiring practices and retool school curriculums to make them more diverse. 

Trustees’ remarks were met by promises by Assistant Superintendent Dr. Gregory Merwin that the cultural proficiency task force’s activities would be sunshined to a greater degree with a public-facing website and quarterly reports to the board, among other commitments.

Superintendent Kirsten Vital expressed her intention to meet with some of the alumni students like Fu and put them in contact with the task force “to follow up on their reform proposals and understand them better.” 

Fu said racism and abuse runs rampant in the district’s schools not just from complicity and refusal to intervene by some teachers — and she gave many examples — but that it has to do with the fact that some students likely aren’t introduced to new environments or diverse cultural backgrounds until they end up in high school.

Early on, there are some disparities in the diversity of the district’s middle and elementary schools depending on the area, she and other students pointed out. For example, more white students can be found in places like Oso Grande Elementary in Ladera Ranch, while more Latinos will likely be found at Kinoshita Elementary in San Juan Capistrano. 

The district’s racial makeup overall is 56% white, followed by 26% Hispanic or Latino, and 6.2% Asian, according to its data.

“A lot of structural racism in the district starts as early on as elementary school,” Fu said.

Burris didn’t respond to questions about diversity across the district’s elementary and middle schools — nor did he respond to questions asking whether the district observed trends around inter-district transfers.

Aside from reforms to the way the district ensures diversity exposure to young kids, Mafouta March said “we really need to have a change in our curriculum.”

She pointed to the “No Place for Hate” program at her school, started after an incident at a football game where San Clemente students were shouting racist slurs at the opposing team’s cheerleader.

“Going off the local protests and Black Lives Matter movement, I think all the push we’re having now is a really good time to push that through and have concrete change,” she said. She also said changes will need to happen among local elected government bodies — but that young people like her will need to turn out and register to vote.

Added Fu: “CUSD’s school board is elected.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.