Shortly before Christmas break, Ojai parents received a troubling letter from junior high administrators sharing that nine students had apparently lain down on a field together in the shape of a swastika.
The letter, which a parent shared with The Times, has prompted concerns over the response from Matilija Junior High School as well as the safety of students.
In the Dec. 14 letter, administrators shared that 12 students were part of a group chat that included racist, sexually inappropriate and threatening commentary, including a comment about bringing knives to school.
“It brings us great pain to share with you, reprehensible student actions that have taken place over the course of the last few weeks,” the letter, from the principal and vice principal, said.
School administrators told parents they immediately partnered with police “given the severity of the threats.” The police found no active threat toward students on campus, according to the letter.
“It’s crazy that nine kids could lay on a playground with 400 kids and teachers everywhere and no one see it,” said one parent, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
The parent said there is a lot of “subtle racism” in the city, which is 82% white, 12% Latino and 0.5% black, according to census data.
Her children, who are black, have been the victims of racial slurs in the city, she said. She is concerned by the letter because some of her other children will be entering Matilija Junior High soon.
“I just can’t believe there’s no parent meeting, nothing,” she said. “My hope is that there’s exposure, because I think that the school needs to know how seriously they should be taking this. This is way more serious than sending out a small letter.”
The principal of the school was contacted by a parent whose child was part of the group sharing photos, according to an Ojai Police Department incident report. The principal then contacted police.
“Long story short, the posts were of a juvenile with a sword and some off-color comments, but ultimately there were no weapons brought on campus, there was no discrimination at the school,” said Sgt. Shane Matthews of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. “It was not determined to be a crime.”
The student with the sword denied any affiliation with Nazis or white supremacists, Matthews said, and did not appear to be associated with the photo of the swastika. Deputies interviewed multiple students, along with their parents.
“At the end, there was some school discipline given, but there was no criminal violations,” Matthews said.
Administrators are reviewing various options at the school and district levels for “educational experiences to help bring more sensitivity and understanding to these topics,” said Ojai Unified School District Supt. Andy Cantwell, who thanked the parent who reported the messages.
“It does not represent the character of our school. … It also doesn’t represent the character of these students,” Cantwell said. “They made very poor choices, not understanding the gravity of these symbols.”
Matilija students have been on winter break since Dec. 24 and will return to school next week.
A parent reported the incident to Documenting Hate, a project that tracks bias incidents and hate crimes around the country.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has collected disturbing anecdotes nationwide: white students in Arizona raising a Confederate flag during the Pledge of Allegiance at an assembly; a Georgia high school teacher reporting students who repeated an offensive phrase about women and joked “about Latino students ‘going back to Mexico.’ ”
In an analysis of 472 hate and bias incidents in K-12 schools over the last three years, Education Week and ProPublica found that “most incidents that took place in schools between January 2015 and December 2017 targeted black and Latino students, as well as those who are Jewish or Muslim.”
The Matilija students’ group chat, which began mid-November and continued through the first week of December, was reported by a parent. In photos shared in the chat, there was evidence of students forming the shape of a swastika during lunch.
“The Matilija administration and staff are beyond saddened that this occurred,” the letter stated. Administrators also added that they were confident “this incident has been a profound learning experience for each student involved.”
There were “appropriate consequences to those involved,” the letter said, although it is unclear what those were.
In the letter, parents were told to expect to hear about follow-up activities and a student assembly to address topics including “the gravity of using racial slurs, the severity of making threats to students, the inappropriate use of social media, and the role of bystanders who observe such serious offenses.”
“We want you to know that in no way do we think these interactions characterize our school as a whole,” the letter read. “However, these interactions greatly impact all of us.”
Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.