Lowell High School is considered an academically elite public school. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Lowell High School is considered an academically elite public school. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Students denounce ‘rampant, unchecked racism’ at Lowell after slurs flood anti-racism lesson

A lesson on anti-racism at Lowell High School on Wednesday was bombarded by racist, anti-Semitic and pornographic images and language.

The incident has been denounced by students as an example of unaddressed problems with the school’s culture.

When students were asked to share their thoughts on a platform called Padlet on Wednesday, they were met with racist anti-Black sentiments and slurs in between sincere reflections on race and society. While San Francisco Unified School District is investigating, students of color strongly believe the messages came from a person or persons in the community.

“It’s being swept under the rug,” said Shavonne Hines-Foster, a Lowell senior and student delegate on the school board. “I think the school is trying to make this an issue about cybersecurity when it’s an issue about racism. SFUSD knows it’s there, they’ve just let Lowell run amok because they’re Lowell…prestigious Lowell.”

Several messages, some liked by others, used the N-word and an anti-Semitic slur, while one accused President Joe Biden of cheating and called for his death.

Students say they were initially met with dismissive statements from school officials focusing on the possibility of a hack. Access to the online bulletin board was believed to be limited to staff members, and online education platforms often require a district email.

In a letter to Mayor London Breed, Superintendent Vincent Matthews and Supervisor Myrna Melgar, students backed by the Lowell Black Student Union on Wednesday expressed frustration at the school administration’s “formulaic” email responses, which they felt failed to acknowledge “the racism and anti-Blackness so rooted in the culture at Lowell.”

“Placing the responsibility on anonymous hackers completely disregards the rampant, unchecked racism at Lowell,” read the letter, co-authored by Lowell senior Justine Orgel. “With such a publicly accessible platform within the school community, these actions could very well be those of a Lowell student. Eliminating this possibility further marginalizes an already small Black population.”

Disproportionate to SFUSD demographics, Lowell has predominantly Asian and white students while Black students accounted for 2 percent and Latino students made up 12 percent of the population in 2018. The Black Student Union led a walkout in 2016 with demands to increase the number of Black students and staff at the school through the use of a full-time recruitment officer, mandatory ethnic studies courses and an African-American Community Center at the school.

Students again called for those demands to be met this week and said that more action needs to be taken to address the incident and larger cultural issues. They also said administrators to stop censoring students who raise the issue of racism at Lowell.

On Thursday afternoon, Matthews and Lowell Principal Dacotah Swett denounced the attacks and vowed to hold the parties responsible.

“We are deeply concerned about and condemn the racist, anti-Semitic, pornographic and offensive content that was discovered,” Matthews said in a statement. “We are committed to finding the perpetrators and ensuring full accountability for this heinous act.”

“If you are one of our students the full measure of disciplinary action will be taken in accordance with district policies, up to and including expulsion,” Swett added. “Your actions constitute hate speech and you will be held accountable.”

School board President Gabriela Lopez seconded the demands and called the attack “sickening.” Vice President Allison Collins said she is working on crafting policy changes to address the underlying issue but wants to see students’ concerns lead the way.

“This is about a pervasive culture at the school and silencing of students who are trying to air out issues so they can get results,” Collins said. “There’s a history of inaction and that allows this stuff to continue. It’s not just a Lowell issue.”

In October, Lowell was the center of controversy again over the district’s decision to pause selective admissions due to coronavirus and triggered intense responses. Hines-Foster was shouted down by public commenters at a board meeting when she spoke to the troubling culture at Lowell and also received hate mail and death threats.

In response to the unanimous school board vote to pause the admissions process, Lopez and Collins — both women of color — were targeted by a district graduate who photoshopped swastikas on their foreheads and burned their photos with bloodied gloves in images posted to the internet.

A community equity committee born out of the 2016 walkout began meeting in the summer and was making progress until it was disbanded at the beginning of the school year, Hines-Foster said. She considers the statements made by Matthews and Swett acknowledging it could have been a student “a step” but is skeptical of lasting changes without more action.

“I just want them to follow through, because the school always preaches ‘Oh, we’re anti-racist’ but they don’t follow through for Black students,” Hines-Foster said. “There’s been so many failed attempts that the school thinks they’re doing something when they’re actually not. They’re not calling it out for what it is.”

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