Ricky Wright, the principal of Palm Springs High and an African American, stood outside his campus office at 4 o’clock in the morning, staring at a word. It was scrawled on a window in white shoe polish, six letters beginning with “N.”
Strapped to a pillar of the clock tower around the corner was a dead cat. It was black. Dog excrement and ketchup soiled the administration building. On the front door was a symbol that resembled a swastika.
The scene might have been easier for Wright to comprehend if that was the extent of it, plain virulent racism. But in the predawn gloom he also saw the same white lettering on windows and walkways spelling out “Seniors 2000.”
Later that June day, police identified 16 Palm Springs High students and two others who participated in what officials called a “senior prank gone awry.”
Wright insisted on handling the matter himself. He suspended the students--all seniors, many highly honored, some from prominent families, mostly white--and barred them from commencement ceremonies. “These are my kids,” he said. “This is between me and the kids.”
But it turned out to be much more.
The incident and its tangled aftermath have scandalized and enraged important families, embarrassed the Police Department, offended African Americans and others. Underlying it all is a history of racial hostilities invisible to the about 3 million people who annually visit this resort area, with its 16,000 swimming pools, 6,400 hotel rooms and 100 golf courses.
To many in the city’s African American community, the vandalism aroused resentment dating back four decades, when Palm Springs officials ran blacks out of downtown and burned their homes to make way for hotels and shops--a “city-engineered holocaust,” a 1968 state investigation concluded.
That episode, said Joseph Beaver, a 78-year-old resident and amateur historian, “is a simmering volcano on top of beautiful Palm Springs.”
Perhaps no one here knows racial conflict better than John Carlos, who works as a counselor at Palm Springs High. He was one of two Olympic track medalists who raised a black-gloved fist on the victor’s stand at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City to protest U.S. treatment of African Americans. Today, he is as blunt as ever.
In Palm Springs, he said, prejudice “is inbred in the households and it comes out not only on the high school campus but throughout the city.”
Mayor William Kleindienst said the city is working to improve race and ethnic relations. “We’re an incredibly diverse community, and there’s a lot of acceptance of different people,” he said. “But we still have evidence of some degree of hate crime. It seems incredible that there’s this problem.”
The “problem” surfaced repeatedly during the past decade at Palm Springs High, one of the few places in a largely segregated city where teenagers of all backgrounds are thrown together.
The school district hired Wright, a self-described “kid from the projects” with two master’s degrees, partly to ease the racial turmoil there.
People who know him talk first of his heart. “When it comes to kids, he doesn’t compromise,” said Daniel Kenley, principal of nearby Desert Hot Springs High School. “If he believes something is not good for kids, he’s willing to march into hell.”
Heart? After a Palm Springs High football coach chewed the team out for not showing enough grit on the field, Wright fired the guy. “They may not have had the skills, but they had it in here,” he said, pointing to his chest.
Six-foot-four, lean, a youthful 51, he has a star athlete’s assured walk and direct, size-up-the-competition gaze. He still holds the career scoring and rebounding records in basketball at Cal State Stanislaus. He was All-American in the high jump, the essence of which is soaring unassisted over an ever-higher obstacle until you reach your limit.
He has been in the midst of racial controversy before, having worked 30 years in public schools in Bakersfield, his hometown. But the vandalism at Palm Springs High raised the bar. And true to form, he tried to go it alone. He thought that by punishing all the students equally, one or more would confess and spare the others the shame.
Whether he misjudged today’s youth or Palm Springs or his own abilities, the outcome surprised him, as did the event itself.
“Not one kid walked by that swastika and said, ‘No.’ Why didn’t one of them try to stop it?”
A Community in Ashes
For many African Americans in Palm Springs, marginalization is not just a metaphor for being pushed aside. They can trace it on a map.
At the city’s northern edge is the largest predominantly black neighborhood, a wind-swept area with many boarded up or rundown houses stuck in sandy yards as though left by a tide that never returned. The neighborhood was born after city officials began forcing blacks and others out of downtown in the early 1960s.
Blacks and Latinos began moving in earnest to Palm Springs during World War II, drawn by work on nearby farms and in defense factories. Most settled in a parcel called Section 14, a square mile of desert in the heart of town owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Workers and their families leased small plots and put up shacks, wood-frame houses, cinder-block houses.
Demand for affordable housing was so strong that 1,000 or more people, or about 10% of Palm Springs’ residents, lived in Section 14 by the early 1960s.
City elders hoping to lure tourists into new hotels and restaurants found that Section 14, locally known as “the reservation,” stood in the way.
“I was scared to death that someone from Life magazine was going to come out and see the poverty, the cardboard houses, and do a story about the poor people and horrible conditions in Palm Springs just half a mile from the Desert Inn, our high-class property,” Frank Bogert, the mayor at that time, said recently.
Palm Springs officials found their solution in a 1959 change in federal law allowing Indian families to offer prospective tenants 99-year leases, in contrast to the month-to-month leases previously allowed. That made the area more attractive to commercial developers needing long-range security, like hotel magnate Conrad Hilton.
So city and tribal leaders canceled the leases of Section 14 tenants and condemned their homes. The city manager reported in 1966 to the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the city had been able to “demolish, burn and clean up approximately 200 dwellings and structures.” According to a later investigation by the state attorney general’s office, city crews acted without required eviction notices, knocked down houses worth as much as $8,000, and stole some personal belongings.
Though the probe did not find that the city’s action broke any laws, the stinging 1968 report nonetheless compared it to a holocaust and said it was a “classic study in civic disregard for the rights and feelings of minority citizens.”
In a recent interview, Bogert defended the city’s actions as necessary and said eviction notices were properly served. “We gave every one of the people we kicked off the reservation a permit to get a house on the north end,” he said. Most people who complained, he said, “were trying to raise hell saying I was discriminating against them.”
Tom Kieley, an ex-Palm Springs official and a resident for 64 years, insisted that the razing was not discriminatory because every non-Indian resident was displaced, black, Latino and white. But, he added, “I suppose anybody who is a colored person in this community has probably been hurt emotionally in the past.”
Dianne Lee, a longtime resident and an African American, said she was a little girl when her family’s wood-frame house in Section 14 was destroyed.
“We came home one day and it was being burned down,” she recalled. “We didn’t have no place to go.”
Decades later, the African American community is still embittered by the city’s “cold and callous decisions” to raze Section 14, said Carl McPeters of the Coachella Valley chapter of the NAACP.
At a news conference last fall in front of City Hall--50 yards from the bronze Bogert monument that hails his “lifetime of dedication” to Palm Springs--McPeters demanded that city officials apologize for the action and study whether reparations should be made to families who lost property.
The current mayor, Kleindienst, said he did not know enough about the issue to determine whether an apology is appropriate or whether he is authorized to offer one.
But Joseph Brown, who has worked with youths as a coach and counselor for the city recreation department, said the razing has had a lasting impact: African American “kids find out about Section 14 and they think nobody cares.”
A Prank or a Crime
At Palm Springs High, a modern stucco-and-tile facility east of downtown, kids who live in million-dollar gated mansions mix with kids from gimcrack trailers. Contrary to the city’s reputation as a wealthy enclave, 43% of the students come from families poor enough to receive free or subsidized meals. Out of 1,800 students, 46% are white, 40% Latino, 7% black, 5% Asian, and 1% Native American.
Racial tensions erupted repeatedly on campus in the ‘90s, prompting a 1995 probe by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that placed considerable blame on the mostly white school district staff and teachers.
They contributed to a “racially hostile atmosphere,” engaged in “negative stereotyping” of minority students, punished them more severely than white students for similar offenses and appeared to have “lower expectations” for African American and Latino students, the report said.
A 1997 study by community members and academics confirmed those observations. It tied the tensions to the income and education gaps between rich and poor, the breakdown of families among the impoverished and a “school climate and culture that do not engender a sense of respect for all students.”
Palm Springs authorities say they have been addressing the problem by offering cultural awareness training to staff members and students and monitoring student disciplinary actions. They say they also have tried to hire more staff from underrepresented ethnic and racial groups.
Wright was brought from Bakersfield originally to lead the new Desert Hot Springs High School, but construction delays and the retirement of the Palm Springs High principal landed him at that facility instead.
“I really believe I was supposed to be here,” Wright said. “I believe in destiny.”
Palm Springs High students, like teenagers across the country, have long indulged in the goofy forbidden rite known as senior prank in those last jubilant days before summer. A few years ago, senior pranksters set chickens free in school hallways.
Taking part in last year’s incident, according to Wright and the police, were 16 seniors from the school and two students from Mount San Jacinto High School, a nearby continuing education facility.
Two seniors in the group said in an interview that it was just a graffiti party that one or more youths spoiled by acting on a personal grudge against Wright. The two--both white males now attending college--agreed to give their version of events so long as their names were not disclosed.
They said the prank was arranged hours before the teenagers met at about 3 a.m. in the mall parking lot across from the school. They fanned out across campus. Some chucked eggs, a few tried (and failed) to cement a keg of beer to a sidewalk. Others used washable white shoe polish to write tributes to the graduates. A couple of teenagers had walkie-talkies to coordinate their retreat.
A school district security officer on nightly rounds in a patrol car caught one of the teenagers fleeing, and police later tracked the other students to a nearby apartment building.
The youths said some acts merely appeared to be racially motivated. The black cat, they said, was not hanged in effigy of Wright, as many students and residents assumed. They said somebody picked up the dead animal by the road that night.
Both young men said the symbol on the front door may not have been a swastika, but maybe a sloppily rendered skateboard or snowboard logo. If it was a swastika, one said, “I’m Jewish and that offends me as much as anyone.”
Finally, both said they would have told authorities if they knew who wrote the slur: Why would they screw up their own commencement and bring shame to their families to protect a racist?
Wright declined to say whether he thought all the youngsters knew about or condoned the attack. But, in a rare unguarded moment, he did allow that the kids were “slick. . . . They had lookouts, walkie-talkies, the whole thing.”
Typical of the corrosive uncertainty surrounding the incident is the swastika question. Ultimately, police concluded that the marking was perhaps a product logo, though they offered no evidence for that assertion.
“It was a swastika as far as I’m concerned,” Wright said. Students and parents, he added, did not offer the logo explanation until several days after the incident. “I think they’re grasping at straws,” he said.
On the morning of the incident, Wright asked a janitor to wipe the windows clean of that marking and the N-word he worried might spark fighting--but to leave the obscenities. He then sat in his office, which is near the school’s main entrance, as the usually raucous crowd poured onto campus.
“You could have heard a pin drop,” he said. “I heard kids keep saying, ‘Man, that is messed up.’ ”
Campus opinion, in fact, was divided over the incident and Wright’s response to it. In the days leading up to graduation in mid-June, about 50 students signed a petition asking Wright to let the involved seniors take part in commencement. A number of black students refused to sign.
Controversy spread beyond the campus. One middle-aged white man distributed a flier comparing the incident to a “church burning or night-rider lynching” and decreeing “this is how a pogrom starts.”
Parents of the implicated students thought Wright vastly overstepped his authority by punishing all the students equally when, as the youngsters argued, only one or a few took part in the worst of it.
“I never thought my family would go through such a thing, the humiliation from the community,” one angry parent said at a June meeting of the school board. “I never thought that this [could] happen in the United States of America. . . . I didn’t know that we had so many people in this town that are so perfect.”
Palm Springs police Det. Dan Clary said the case rattled him.
“You would think a vandalism case would be one of the easiest to handle,” he said. “But this has been the toughest of my life. It’s torn me in half. I know a lot of people are upset about this. But this is a lose-lose situation for the police, the kids, the school. It’s sad.”
Wright refused to press criminal charges, despite intense pressure by African Americans in Palm Springs and civil rights groups, which argued that the incident should be pursued as a felony hate crime.
Instead, he listened to his heart.
“I want [the students] to learn a lesson,” Wright said. “But do I want it to haunt them the rest of their lives? No.”
If his home had been attacked, Wright said, he would have pressed charges. Ditto if outsiders had vandalized the high school.
“But if it’s your kids and you’re whippin’ their butts so they’ll learn, that’s different.”
Among the harshest critics of his decision was his wife, Maria Duran Wright, a schoolteacher and a Mexican American. The Wrights live four blocks from the high school, and for a while she kept the couple’s two young children out of the frontyard, lest they be harmed. She half-expected a brick to fly through the window or a burning cross to materialize on the lawn, she said.
The vandals, she said under her breath while sitting next to her husband one summer night, “got off easy.”
It wasn’t until nine days after the incident that police, under mounting pressure from residents, began their investigation. By then, the trail was cold and many of the students’ families had contacted attorneys who advised them not to cooperate.
“After we lost some evidence and the kids lawyered up,” Det. Clary said, “the case became very hard to prove who did what.”
In late July, Palm Springs police recommended to the Riverside County district attorney’s office that the 18 teenagers be charged with misdemeanor vandalism in what they called a “hate incident.” But the request was rejected.
“If you don’t really get the investigation going right away, you put yourself behind the eight ball,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Erwood. “In this case, it just became something that was insurmountable.”
Predictably, the decision angered many residents, especially in the black community. “Same old whitewash,” Ed Joseph said.
Martin Lax, an attorney in Palm Desert and consultant to the Anti-Defamation League, said the punishment Wright imposed was so negligible that whoever perpetrated the racial slur might be emboldened to do worse in the future.
“We want to believe this place is Shangri-La,” he said. “It’s why many of us came here, to get out of L.A. or Orange County. And we don’t want to do anything that can hurt Shangri-La, so we call it a prank, and not take it seriously.”
Reckoning With Race
It is a Saturday night and about 4,000 people are gathered in the Palm Springs convention center. A brassy band plays as hundreds of teenagers in red and white gowns march to seats in the middle of the auditorium.
Missing are the 16 students whom the principal banned from the procession. The atmosphere, while joyous, is also anxious. Extra police and security officers are on hand in case fighting breaks out.
Tonight, Wright receives merely a ripple of applause when he greets the audience from the lectern. Wearing his game face, he returns to the dais, where school board members and senior class officers sit in a row.
The ceremony plods officiously along until the valedictorian approaches the microphone. He doffs his tasseled cap and theatrically puts on a huge floppy white hat bearing names of excluded seniors, written in big red letters. Seniors holler and applaud.
Then, in a speech that salutes the barred seniors’ resolve to stick together, he discusses the “loyalty” that the likes of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. showed for their causes.
Some students thunder their approval.
The scene captured the particular strangeness of race politics in Palm Springs, where King’s name could be invoked to support classmates associated with hostility toward an African American, who happened to be sitting on the stage.
Wright, the newcomer, can’t be blamed for not understanding how the old grievances vie with the old guard beneath the city’s glittering surface to shape events.
The incident taught him a lot about Palm Springs, he said, and sometimes made him wonder if he really belonged there.
It also taught this educator of three decades that he didn’t understand teenagers quite as well as he thought he did. He had assumed that at least one of the involved students would spill the truth. “It should have been that one or two kids took a stand,” he said.
Still, he draws encouragement from lots of other youngsters: “I can’t tell you how many students have come up to me and said, ‘Don’t worry, nothing like that will happen next year.’ ” Parents of only a few of the disciplined students have spoken in a public forum about their feelings. Among them were Jose and Donna Higueras, one of the city’s most illustrious couples. He’s a former tennis champion and now a top coach. She’s an ardent city booster and the daughter of two-term mayor Bogert, who presided during much of the demolition of Section 14.
The Higueras’ son was an honor student at the high school, played varsity sports, did volunteer work--and, she said, had no hand in the racial slur. His grandmother, in Spain, was so proud she had planned to attend commencement. Instead, the family flew there to escape the embarrassment.
Donna Higueras was furious at Wright for treating her teenager as a criminal.
“You’re hearing a parent in a lot of pain,” she said amid tears in a recent interview. “You’re hearing a family in a lot of pain.”
She said Wright did his best under the circumstances, but the whole affair was botched from the beginning. “The innocent kids were not proven innocent and the guilty ones not proven guilty,” she said. “Right now, everybody looks half-innocent and half-guilty.”
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At a Glance
The ancient Indian settlement of Palm Springs, 100 miles east of Los Angeles, gained renown in the 1920s when stars like Charlie Chaplin vacationed there. The population of the city, which has the highest percentage of blacks in the Coachella Valley, grew from 32,355 in 1980 to an estimated 43,500 today.
65 and over 26%
Asian & Pacific Islander 4%
Native American 1%
Sources: U.S. Census, Wheeler’s Desert Letter, Riverside County