What should schools do after a racial controversy?
Cathedral Catholic High School reflects on insensitive incidents and explains what it’s doing to reconcile them
It was last spring during Easter break, and Cathedral Catholic High School President Kevin Calkins was looking forward to going back to school.
Then Calkins got a call with bad news: a Cathedral football player had made a racially insensitive social media post that appeared to compare Cathedral’s opponent, Lincoln High School — a mostly Latino and Black school — with convicts. That post came on top of a photo days earlier when the Cathedral team posed using hand signs that was interpreted by some as gang signs.
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Cathedral, a private Catholic school that charges $20,000 yearly tuition, was all over the news for the social media posts. Calkins said he got calls from the Catholic Bishop of San Diego and outside groups with no ties to Cathedral, all expressing disappointment in his school.
“My stomach just turned,” he said in a recent interview. “And I was really disappointed, and just frustrated and sad.”
Four months later, he thinks his school has changed for the better when it comes to racial equity. All of its staff, the vast majority of its students, and dozens of parents are about to undergo mandatory six-hour training sessions about anti-bias and diversity.
“I hope it’s a lesson learned that we never have to go through again, and that our students and our community will choose differently,” Calkins said. “What started out as a really disappointing and negative experience has, I think, a lot of potential to be a positive thing for us as a school community going forward.”
In the past two years, there have been at least three different, high-profile racial controversies involving San Diego County high school sports programs.
In 2019, San Clemente High School came under fire after students from San Diego Unified’s Lincoln High School — where most students are Latino or Black — were subjected to racial slurs and taunts at a football game hosted by the Orange County school.
In April, Cathedral Catholic came under fire for a team photo regarding a game with Lincoln, in which players were making upside-down L’s with their hands — which some Cathedral players said they didn’t know is considered a gang sign. A Cathedral player also posted a photo wearing a shirt that said “Catholics vs. Convicts III” and a caption that said, “We run the city.”
Cathedral was ordered by a local athletic governing body, the San Diego City Conference, to institute a restorative education program. The conference also put Cathedral’s coach on a two-game suspension and placed the team on two years’ probation — a punishment that some Lincoln staff criticized as too lax.
And in June, Coronado High School’s basketball team came under fire after two students threw tortillas at the basketball team for Orange Glen High School in Escondido — where most students are Latino — following an altercation between the two teams. The incident led the state California Interscholastic Federation to revoke Coronado’s basketball championship and order the school to conduct sportsmanship and racial sensitivity workshops for its student-athletes, leadership and coaches.
In the months following those incidents, the three high schools say they have been working on making their schools more racially sensitive. About 55 percent of Cathedral Catholic and Coronado High students and 64 percent of San Clemente students are White.
San Clemente High has made itself into a “No Place for Hate” school through an Anti-Defamation League program that focuses on anti-bias, Principal Chris Carter said.
Every year, the school now does several school-wide activities that are mandatory for students and staff that educate about things like how to be an ally to people of other groups and what is implicit bias. The school has been putting its staff through training about cultural proficiency, micro-aggressions and other topics, Carter said.
The school has also changed its English curriculum to include more Black, Indigenous and people of color authors, Carter said.
The incident with Lincoln prompted students of color at San Clemente High School to speak up and say they needed the school to support them more, Carter said.
“We learned from our community that we needed to tackle some deep issues with our students and we needed to really educate our school community on race, on bias, on hate, on acceptance and equity across the board,” Carter said.
In Coronado, there has been loud resistance among some community members to discussions of race and to the idea that Coronado committed any wrong with the tortilla incident.
Some community members argue the tortilla incident had nothing to do with race and that the school was being unfairly punished for the actions of the adult community member who brought the tortillas to the game.
Coronado Unified school board members appealed the CIF’s revocation of its high school’s basketball championship, arguing it was too severe a punishment for students when the adult was primarily at fault for the tortillas.
Still, Coronado Unified promises it will institute mandatory cultural sensitivity and anti-bias training for all staff and students in the school district — not just Coronado High, Superintendent Karl Mueller said in an email.
Something that has yet to happen for Cathedral and Coronado high schools is a formal meeting of reconciliation between students from the other teams.
Lincoln Principal Stephanie Brown said in an interview last month that she had tried appealing the City Conference’s ruling regarding Cathedral so that Lincoln wouldn’t have to play Cathedral again this season. She said her appeal was denied.
She commended Cathedral’s leadership and coaches for coming down to Lincoln to meet with Lincoln staff, but she wants to see Cathedral students apologize directly to Lincoln students.
“I really wish and feel that it’s important for there to be some ownership on the part of the players and the families that caused the harm to our students,” she said. “That’s the part that’s still unsettling for me.”
Both Cathedral and Coronado leaders said they intend to have their students meet with students from Lincoln and Orange Glen, respectively, this fall after school is back in session.
“There’s nobody on the Cathedral football team who feels good about what happened, and everyone has acknowledged, yeah, we shouldn’t have done this,” Calkins said. “Cathedral was very clear from the beginning we made a mistake ... we feel terribly that we harmed people and that was something we said right away. If people from Lincoln also feels that needs to come from students, then we’re all in on that.”
Mueller said Coronado plans to hold a “restorative student dialogue” with Orange Glen when school resumes this fall. Coronado High already held a scrimmage and participated in an military leadership academy with Orange Glen, both of which went well, Mueller said.
Escondido Union High School District officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Cathedral Catholic football players Tano Letuli and Donovan Saunders said they had no idea the upside down L’s they used in their team photo would be offensive.
Their team made those hand signals because they had seen it as a tradition for some colleges to take their opposing team’s hand signal — in this case, an “L” for Lincoln — and hold it upside down, Tano and Donovan said.
Even though they said they had no ill intention, both said they learned they needed to be more careful.
“Being smarter on social media is the biggest thing,” Tano said. “Don’t post anything that could be interpreted in any way, even though you don’t mean it that way.”
A week and a half after the social media incidents blew up, and before the school was ordered by the City Conference to implement restorative education, Calkins reached out to a local organization called Third Option City that offers a diversity training program, said Michael Brunker, chief mission advancement officer for the organization.
The main point of the Third Option City training is to have people realize that everybody is more similar than different, everybody is equally human, and that people shouldn’t use differences to pit themselves against others. Third Option City founder Miles McPherson, pastor of The Rock Church, teaches that people shouldn’t consider themselves to be on the side of a division, whether it be pro- or anti-police, Democrat or Republican, or pro- or anti-Black Lives Matter.
The training, which has been used by other school systems in and out of the county, also talks about blind spots that everybody has. Blind spots are the gap between intention and impact, McPherson teaches, and one of those blind spots is that people can be racially offensive without being a racist or without meaning to be.
The solution to uncovering one’s own blind spots, McPherson says, is to ask: am I doing something racially offensive?
He also asks people to do what he calls race consultations, in which people invite people from different backgrounds to share about themselves, rather than assuming things about them based on their race.
Cathedral is requiring this six-hour training for all of its student-athletes — who make up 85 percent of the student body — as well as all of its staff, Calkins said. He said he hopes to have the other 15 percent of students take the training too.
Brunker, who is also heavily involved with Lincoln High, applauded Cathedral’s quick response to the social media incidents and said it could be a model for other high schools.
“They kept on the path — no delays, no excuses,” Brunker said.
Even before the social media incidents, Cathedral was already working on racial equity efforts, which Calkins said were sparked by former pro football player Colin Kaepernick’s protests against racism in 2016.
Two years ago, the school eliminated its use of detentions and suspensions; now, when students commit an offense, school staff talk with the student about why they committed the offense, and the student makes a contract with the school about how they will make amends for their offense.
Calkins has gotten some pushback from parents about the training who think it’s unfair that they’re getting “punished” for the actions of the football team by having to take this training. Calkins said he tells them that Cathedral was already on a path to improving racial equity before the social media incidents happened — the incidents with Lincoln merely sped it up, he said.
He said he has also gotten some pushback from parents who believe the training constitutes critical race theory, which is the study of how racism is embedded in legal systems and society in general. Conservatives in San Diego County and nationwide are opposing discussions of race and racism in general and calling it critical race theory, arguing that talking about race is divisive.
Calkins tells parents that the training, which is about diversity and inclusion, is not critical race theory.
“It’s about creating an inclusive space where all students and all student-athletes feel welcome and then equipping all of our student-athletes with the confidence, skills and strategies to be part of the solution,” Calkins said.
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