Four weeks ago, few students at Malibu High School would have known it was the start of Black History Month. There were no kick-off events and no guest speakers. Then, a handful of African American students on campus decided to make a change.
For the first time, the predominantly white Malibu High commemorated the event with weekly lessons on Madam C.J. Walker, Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman. Today, half a dozen African American students plan to host a black history assembly and hip-hop dance performance.
Parisa Vines, 17, a junior who helped coordinate the event, said there aren’t many minorities on campus and that few students knew about Black History Month. “I just wanted to get it out there so people can know some good things” or gain some sense of black history besides slavery, she said.
Black students make up more than 2% -- about 32 pupils -- of the school’s 1,300-student body. White students make up 83%, Latino students 10% and Asians 4%.
Most of Malibu High’s African American students live outside of the city. They make up more than a third of the 80 minority students who attend the sixth- to 12th-grade campus on special permits. Some go there because their parents want them to receive a better education than their neighborhood schools might provide; others need to be closer to their parents’ jobs.
But for some black students, the busing system and racial imbalance have made them feel out of place. They recently formed a Black Student Union, and members say they have dealt with racist comments on campus. Others say “MLO,” which stands for “Malibu Locals Only,” remains carved on some desks, compounding their feelings of being outsiders.
Club members said they hoped that the Black History Month celebration would unite the student body. Though the Student Council supported the celebration and Principal Mark Kelly encouraged the idea, organizers still worry that some students might not understand the need for the event.
Sherene Tagharobi, 16, a student journalist for Malibu High’s newspaper, the Current, wrote a story about the club’s efforts for next month’s edition. After interviewing some of the organizers, Sherene said: “It’s kind of sad because they are having trouble with it and stressing out about how people are going to respond.”
Anna Deshautelle, a Malibu High teacher who is advising the Black Student Union, said the students she works with “just feel like maybe they don’t belong.”
“Their parents are insisting they come to Malibu,” she said. “There is a feeling they will get a better education.... Yet socially it is much more difficult.”
Breanna Box, a seventh-grader who is white, said she wanted to learn more about black history. But Breanna, 12, said some classmates “got offended” when students made Black History Month announcements over the intercom because equal recognition wasn’t given to other groups.
Several white students, including Reed Farrer, 16, said the commemoration was “awesome.”
Reed added that he supported the idea because “we’re kind of in a bubble here. The real world has a lot more” diversity.
The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District opened the high school in 1992 under pressure from mostly affluent white Malibu parents who didn’t want their children to travel to Santa Monica High.
The district agreed to add a high school component to the former Malibu Park Middle School, renovating and expanding the 340-student campus.
But the board’s decision roiled Santa Monica parents, including many Latinos and African Americans who worried that the new high school would divert money from that city’s campus.
To appease both sides, the board of education gave minority students priority admission to Malibu High. Their goal was to recruit and enroll a student body that was at least 35% minority from inside and outside of the district. The college preparatory campus would offer a rigorous education with a curriculum that took advantage of the mountains and beaches surrounding the school.
More than a decade later, however, the school is not nearly as diverse as board members had hoped it would be.
As in other districts, the permit program was intended to encourage integration, said Laurel Schmidt, director of pupil services for the district. But in the years after the opening of Malibu High, parents of all races and ethnicities applied and enrolled their children.
In recent years, the district placed a moratorium on permits, Schmidt said. Currently, 2,126 students attend Santa Monica-Malibu Unified schools on permits from Los Angeles, Culver City and Santa Monica.
Parisa, a Malibu High junior who takes the bus from Culver City, said she realized the challenge of fitting in when she first went to the school in sixth grade. At the time, a student told her that braided hairstyles made “black people look like spiders,” she said.
Students have also casually used derogatory terms for blacks because, Parisa said, they hear it in rap songs and they think it is OK. “It’s not OK.”
“It makes me angry,” she said. “But I have to learn to be the bigger person.”
Some black students, including Troy Taylor, 17, have made friends across color lines. In the halls, he greets other students with a hug or a friendly gesture.
Troy, who helped form the Black Student Union, is a member of the Student Council and the basketball team. He presented the idea of forming the club that would put together a Black History Month event to the Student Council, and “to my surprise,” he said, “everyone voted ‘yes.’ ”
Troy said he didn’t feel comfortable when he first transferred to Malibu High from Santa Monica High, which, in comparison, is 12% African American, about 30% Latino, 8% Asian and 50% white. His former campus also had a strong Black Student Union.
“Now, senior year, I have a lot of friends,” said Troy, who added that he wanted his peers to understand that black culture was not everything they see on television.
“I think our assembly and activities will really set a high bar for other activities to come,” Troy said. “We’re taking this seriously, and [it will] motivate people to join, support and open their minds.”
Skye Wilson, 16, another member of the Black Student Union, said she did not believe most students were racist. Rather, she said, “I think a lot of them just don’t know. I think if we tell them [about black history], they will want to know about it.”
Skye’s mother, Trina Wilson, said she was proud of the black students’ efforts. She knows it is a challenge. But she prefers that her daughter attend Malibu rather than her home school, Jefferson High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“They have the supplies and books they need,” she said. “I saw a better opportunity for my kids, and I wanted to go with it.”
Wilson said she hoped the Black History Month celebration would help her daughter’s classmates understand their similarities. “You bleed, I bleed,” she said. “We all bleed the same color.”