By Thomas K. Pendergast
While many Americans were celebrating a new federal government administration on Inauguration Day, for some students at Lowell High School Jan. 20 was tainted with displays of racism and pornography.
As part of an anti-racism lesson, students were asked to share thoughts and ideas about the subject on an online bulletin board program called Padlet. Somehow, this lesson devolved to include anti-Black and anti-Semitic slurs, along with insults to President Joe Biden and calls for his death, according to media reports.
Padlet can be used by students and teachers to post online notes on a common page. Notes posted by teachers and students can contain links, videos, images and document files.
According to some students and alumni, however, the racist posts did not come as much of a surprise because they have already seen plenty of racism before at what is considered by many to be the most academically rigorous school in the San Francisco Unified School District.
Media reports show the school’s response has been mixed and somewhat conflicted, with school officials denouncing the posts while suggesting it could be hackers from outside the school. Officials conceded nonetheless that it was “highly likely” to have been the work of a Lowell student.
“A post had racist remarks and images that were posted on a Padlet that was being used in one of the lessons for the Registry class, and administration discovered that on Wednesday afternoon,” said Bill Sanderson, the district’s assistant superintendent of high schools. “The administration then reported the issue. They sent the message out to the school community, and an investigation was begun about it. The posting was taken down on Wednesday afternoon, and they are continuing the investigation to discover who actually did the post. They have not been able to identify the person who did the post yet, but they are still investigating that.”
But others do not think the school administration is doing enough.
“As an educator I’ve never seen anything as offensive my entire life as what I saw,” school board Vice President Alice Collins said. “It contained pornographic images of Black men having oral sex and over it it said F-words, N-words. There were Biden and Trump related imagery and there was also anti-Semitic statements. And what students related to us is that they were upset about that … the response from the (school) administration seemed to focus on cyberbullying or hacking and not the fact that this is not an isolated incident.
“This is in a series of incidents that we’ve seen at this school and also individual experiences that students are having, and they felt that the response by staff was lackluster. So, that is why students elevated this and sent out emails to the mayor and to commissioners and City-wide.”
At a school board meeting on Jan. 26, Rev. Arnold G. Townsend, vice president of the San Francisco Branch of the NAACP, suggested that this incident is just the tip of the iceberg. He pointed to a much deeper problem that he connected to the fact that, unlike most other schools in the district, entrance to Lowell has been based on high grades and test scores, contributing to an elitism that permeates the overall culture of the school.
“A toxic culture that has been allowed to flourish at Lowell for far too long is your problem,” Townsend said. “And dealing with it incident by incident means you’ll deal with it and wait for the next incident and in between an untold number of students will be traumatized. It is a culture that has been created by allowing Lowell students to think that they’re better.”
One of the newest members to the school board, Matt Alexander, said he’s familiar with stories involving racist behavior at Lowell.
“If we’re surprised, our eyes have been closed. I’ve worked in the school district for 20 years as a teacher and principal. The experience of students of color at Lowell is no secret. It has been going on for a very long time,” Alexander said. “I remember visiting as a principal, probably eight years ago, and talking with a focus group of students of color about their experience at the school. It was well known. The principal at the time chose that as an issue to focus on because it was an issue back then.
“My son just graduated from Lowell. So I can give you lots of examples of institutionalized systemic racism that occurs on a regular basis at the school,” he said. “So if we’re claiming that this is an isolated incident, we’re kidding ourselves, and we’re actually doing worse than that. I think that truth telling is really, really important as a first step.”
Vincent Matthews, SFUSD superintendent, said Lowell has had a reputation for racism for a very long time.
“Forty-plus years ago I was a student who had gotten accepted to Lowell,” Matthews said. “Those of you who know my mother, there was not a lot that I could get away with; my mother, if she said I had to do something, I had to do it.
“But this is one time where I stood up to her and just said ‘I’m not going to do it.’” he explained. “I was accepted and went all the way up until, basically, I did not register or enroll in McAteer until the day before McAteer was supposed to start because she kept trying to push me into Lowell and I was not going to go.
“The culture of Lowell has been the culture of Lowell since Lowell began as an admission school, a test-in school. And that has caused that culture to be there. I didn’t go. I refused to go because I knew what I would be walking into. And I was not going to walk into that culture.”
Categories: Lowell High School