ENCINITAS — Just hours into the new year, a masked individual spray-painted several racist and homophobic slurs on a San Dieguito Academy administration building, prompting school district officials and local civil rights groups to denounce the hate crime in separate gatherings on Monday in Encinitas.
The incident occurred at approximately 3:55 a.m. on New Year’s Day, according to the school district. The words, written in green spray paint, were quickly covered up by the school’s groundskeepers before police arrived. However, photos were taken and shared on social media before they could be covered up.
The suspect was seen on security cameras entering campus and committing the acts alone, according to law enforcement and school district officials.
In a press conference at the district office Monday, Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward condemned the action and said the district is conducting its own investigation into the hate crime, which the FBI defines as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”
“We understand that San Dieguito Union High School District is not perfect. We know that we have issues around racism and other -isms. Around religious issues as well — we’re quite aware of that,” James-Ward said. “Because of that awareness we have put in place different measures to help us become our next best self.”
Superintendent James-Ward touted the district’s new diversity, equity and inclusion training, and the district’s new hiring of an ombudsman to deal with issues surrounding equity.
James-Ward said the key to preventing future similar incidents is to engage with students at school about issues, such as racism and homophobia.
“I think the most important thing is to be on campus, is to talk to kids,” James-Ward said. “I think it’s important to hear them, to understand them, and the best way to do that is to be in school.”
In a separate gathering on Monday, a group of community members and students met at San Dieguito Academy to rally against the hateful speech, emphasizing their belief school officials have not listened to the community’s concerns of underlying racism issues in the district.
Rob Jenkins, vice president of the North San Diego County chapter of the NAACP, said his organization has attempted to meet with the district regarding ongoing racism and will continue to do so.
“Our president, Satia Austin, requested a meeting with the superintendent, the principal and the district yesterday morning to make sure that they meet with us. And we will make sure that this happens as soon as possible,” Jenkins said. “This is a systemic problem that is happening not just here on the San Dieguito Academy campus but this is happening all across the nation.”
Jenkins and others also questioned why the NAACP or other community or student groups weren’t invited to the district’s press conference on the issue.
Max Disposti, executive director of the North County LGBTQ Resource Center, said the district missed a chance for unity with its community members by not holding a combined press conference.
“What a missed opportunity for the district to actually do a community action and come together and call and reach out to the NAACP and community members to respond to a common problem,” Disposti said. “We haven’t seen any preventative action. We have only seen reactionary responses to what has happened.”
Mayor Catherine Blakespear joined the rally to denounce racism in the city, saying the kind of crime committed at the campus can lead to further violence down the road.
“If we don’t have these kinds of conversations it can happen again,” Blakespear said. “We know that this causes real harm to real people. And we also know that the dehumanizing of others for their race, sexuality, religion or for any reason leads to gun violence, arson, and physical harm and intimidation and countless other tragedies.”
The district is investigating the identity of the person responsible for the graffiti. The North Coastal Station of the San Diego Sheriff’s department is also in possession of the school’s security footage and is actively investigating the matter, according to school district officials.
The district has described the suspect as a youth, but the Sheriff’s Department is not ruling out the possibility of the suspect being an adult.
“By the size of the imagery I would not be surprised if it was an adult,” Sheriff’s Captain Dustin Lopez told The Coast News. “I can’t say for sure until the video is broken down but it would not surprise me.”
Law enforcement is also working with juvenile detectives assigned to SDA to see if they can find more information on who may may be responsible.
The district said anyone with information that could lead to finding the suspect can submit it anonymously on the WeTip link on any of the school websites from the district.