A sophomore at the high school in Pacific Palisades is speaking out about the hostile climate for minority students she says the campus fosters.
Just months after she transferred to Palisades Charter High School in January, Aina Shola Adewunmi said an image depicting her with a noose around her neck was being circulated among other students.
It didn't take long after the 15-year-old arrived on campus for a group of students to start using racial slurs in reference to her, Adewunmi said.
“They were using the n-word, and I was like, ‘OK, this is what this year is going to be like,’” she said.
One of the teenage boys in her chemistry class continually used her race to make conversation; one boy asked her if she wanted to know how "hot" she is "on the black-versus-white scale," she said. So she set clear boundaries about what was and was not OK.
“Do you retaliate with frustration, or do you retaliate with knowledge? I chose the high road,” she said.
But a group of boys persisted, and on May 23 she saw a photo of her doctored to depict her being lynched was shared via text message in a group chat.
She said her response was “more disgust than sadness, because everyone knows there’s ignorant people in the world, and you’re going to encounter them at any turn.”
Adewunmi immediately reported the picture to the school's principal but asked them not to call her mom, who didn't find out about it until two days later, she said.
“When she told me I felt like I had been punched in the gut,” Tracy Adewunmi said.
A police report documenting the alleged hate crime was submitted May 26, the family said. A Los Angeles Police Department detective has been assigned to the case.
School officials organized mediation to deal with the issue, but so far the family isn't satisfied with the response.
In a statement to KTLA, Principal Pam Magee described the incident as "egregious" and said the school took immediate action to discipline the students involved.
Magee said the boys involved have been barred from campus for at least the rest of the school year but couldn't discuss further disciplinary details, citing privacy laws.
“I need more," Tracy said. "Initially during the mediation, when we suggested expulsion, they said no.”
This is not the first time a racially motivated incident has thrust the campus into the spotlight.
Last year, graffiti that referenced the Ku Klux Klan, Jews, African Americans and LGBT people was found sprawled across the school, prompting a community protest. Two students were eventually arrested in connection with the vandalism, according to the Los Angeles Times.
About 48 percent of the charter school's students identify as an ethnic minority, according to data from the U.S. News & World Report, while minorities only make up about 11 percent of residents in the surrounding community, U.S. Census statistics show.
But, despite the climate and school's response, Adewunmi said she views the incident as an opportunity for teaching and personal growth.
“I don’t think I’m a victim at all," she said. "I think this was a hate crime, yes, but with the support I’ve gotten from the people at this school, there’s no such thing as a victim here. It’s more like empowerment.”
Read the school's full statement below:
The conduct of the students was egregious and contrary to the mission and values of our school, our students, our staff, and our community, and is not tolerated at PCHS. Although I cannot reveal discipline details due to privacy laws, I can confirm that the students who were involved in these acts have been disciplined, and will not be on the PCHS campus for at least the remainder of the current school year. PCHS took immediate action as soon as it learned of the incident on May 23, and we are continuing to investigate the circumstances and other potential misconduct by the students. In addition to taking action to remove the students from the educational environment and provide education on why this is such a reprehensible act, various supports have been offered to and accepted by the victim. These efforts will continue to ensure her educational and other rights are protected.
It is important to note that Palisades Charter High School has previously put in place a variety of programs to combat issues such as this including the Board adoption of an Anti-Discrimination Policy, the implementation of Peer Mediation and Teen Court, the development of the Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, Unity Month, and providing school-wide opportunities for students to share input about their views on culture and climate at PCHS.
— Pam Magee, Principal, Palisades Charter High School