Nine students at California’s Matilija Junior High School laid in a field at lunch to form a human swastika, then posted an image of their accomplishment to a private group chat that was later uncovered by a parent.
The parent provided school officials 112 pages of lewd chat logs that detailed the incident and other concerning commentary shortly before the Christmas break. Ojai Unified School District Superintendent Andy Cantwell told the Ventura County Star the revelations prompted a threat assessment by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office that ultimately yielded no threats, as well as punishments for a dozen students involved – undisclosed consequences that varied based on “level of participation,” he said.
The “Matilija Administration” sent a letter to parents in December to give them a heads up about the “reprehensible student actions” at the junior high, and through “commentary and sharing of images through a group chat.”
“The actions, comments and pictures consisted of racist, sexually inappropriate and threatening commentary including a comment by a student to bring knives to school,” the letter read. “In photos shared during the group chat, there is evidence of nine students laying on the field together to form the shape of a swastika during lunch. The Matilija administration and staff are beyond saddened that this occurred.”
The letter explained that “given the severity of the threats” school and police officials “spent the last two days fully investigating this situation” and concluded “there is no active threat toward students on campus.”
“Long story short, the posts were of a juvenile with a sword and some off-color comments, but ultimately there were no weapons brought on campus, there was no discrimination at the school,” Sgt. Shane Matthews told the Los Angeles Times. “It was not determined to be a crime.”
School officials vowed to hold a student assembly to discuss specific topics, including “the gravity of using racial slurs, the severity of making threats to students, the inappropriate use of social media, and the role of bystanders who observe such serious offences.”
California Department of Education data shows students at Matilija Junior High last year were 60 percent white, 32 percent Hispanic or Latino, and .7 percent black, the Star reports.
One parent who spoke with the Times seems to think the district’s not doing enough to fight “subtle racism” in the community.
“It’s crazy that nine kids could lay on a playground with 400 kids and teachers everywhere and no one see it,” said the parent, who wanted to remain anonymous.
“I just can’t believe there’s no parent meeting, nothing,” she said. “My hope is that there’s exposure, because I think that the school needs to know how seriously they should be taking this. This is way more serious than sending out a small letter.”
The Anti-Defamation League of the Santa Barbara/Tri-Counties Region also weighed in with a prepared statement and offer to provide anti-bias education programs for Matilija schools.
“The thought that nine middle school students took it upon themselves to form a human swastika is chilling,” director Cyndi Silverman told the Star. “In 2017, we saw a 94 percent increase in hate incidents in K-12 schools, and, unfortunately, this is yet another example of this disturbing trend.”
Cantwell, the Ojai superintendent, promised to turn the incident into a “learning opportunity.”
“As a school administrator, student safety is always the top priority beyond safety from physical harm. We have a responsibility to provide an environment where all students and cultures are treated with dignity and respect,” Cantwell said. “It’s discouraging to see the choices students can make, but we can make this a learning opportunity, just as we always seek to help students in their maturation and growth.”