Newport-Mesa school district will form task force to promote a culture of ‘inclusivity’ in response to students’ swastika party

A little over a week after pictures from an off-campus party showed local high school students flashing Nazi salutes over a swastika made of plastic drinking cups, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District board directed Supt. Fred Navarro to create a human-relations task force in a bid to combat hate and alter “school culture.”

“We are grateful for and appreciate our culturally diverse population. We will continue to do all we can as educators to ensure a culture of understanding, care and inclusivity,” board President Charlene Metoyer said.

Newport Harbor High vandalized with Nazi posters following outrage over students’ swastika party »

“I am tired of these incidents,” said Gaby Hernandez, the mother of Newport-Mesa alumni and a current student. “This is not the first incident; this is not the second incident or the third incident. It’s been an ongoing thing, and, to be honest, nothing has been done.”

“[My children] are used to people yelling stuff in the hallways,” she said. “They are used to certain types of behaviors. It is not enough to say how much you care about students of color or that you lived in Venezuela or that you know Latino students. It is not enough. It is time to act.”

Hernandez started an online petition asking the district to do more to combat an alleged “two-tier” educational system.

As of Wednesday, it had gathered more than 560 signatures.

The district plans to host an open informational meeting about the task force at 6:30 p.m. March 27 at the Sanborn building at the district office, 2985 Bear St., Costa Mesa, where it will take suggestions from the public on how to proceed. Navarro said district staff is communicating with OC Human Relations, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit that will help develop the task force.

District trustee Karen Yelsey said the swastika incident could be seen as an opportunity to change a culture of privilege and prejudice that students have said contributed to what happened, though she said it wouldn’t be resolved overnight.

Community members had mixed responses.

Parent Kate Malouf praised the board, saying she was “blown away at the [district’s] professionalism and dignity.”

Ruth Sanchez-Kobayashi, the mother of two recent Newport-Mesa graduates, said community forums held last week at Newport Harbor and Corona del Mar high schools in Newport Beach were “heartfelt, raw and painful, but also hopeful.”

“The leaders of this district have demonstrated a commitment to dealing with this ugly event, and the Newport-Mesa community supports those efforts,” she said.

But others criticized the district, saying its disciplinary actions in connection with the incident were not enough.

The district has not publicly disclosed those actions, citing student privacy laws.

Students have said the party included teenagers from Newport Harbor, Costa Mesa and Estancia high schools.

The private JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano said last week that a student photographed at the party is “now a former student,” and a local soccer club said a player linked to the incident is no longer with the team.

Also last week, students involved in the party met at Newport Harbor High with Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss, stepsister and childhood friend of famed teenage diarist Anne Frank.

District staff said Newport-Mesa students were given free admission to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

But Evelin Ramos, an alumna of Newport Harbor, said she felt the students’ actions at the party “ruined” the school for current and former students.

Her younger sister, Viridiana Ramos, a freshman at Estancia High in Costa Mesa, said she chose not to go to Newport Harbor because she was called a slur in her seventh-grade English honors class. She said she wasn’t shocked by the incident at the party, “because all of this hate starts in middle school.”

“The swastika symbol not only minimizes the Jews, but it’s so full of hate that it speaks to the minorities,” she said. “Just experiencing so much hate at such a young age … makes me extremely sad.”