Pride and prejudice

Is Novato, Calif., a breeding ground for hatred -- or just like every other American suburb?

Published April 20, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

At the entrance to San Marin High School, nestled in the rolling green hills of California's Marin County, there is a glass display case. Inside are photos of the students in REACH, which stands for Respect Embrace Accept Connect and Harmonize -- ambitious goals for any high school -- and a display on "Day of Respect '98," a kind of multicultural pep rally sponsored by the club. There are also
bumper stickers with slogans such as "ERACISM," "Hate Free Zone" and "Celebrate Diversity." A small pin pressed into the corkboard reads "Not in
Our Town." Intended as a vigilant community stand against prejudice, the message now seems particularly poignant in light of the explosion of hatred that did occur in this town, just weeks ago.

In February, 17-year-old student Adam Colton was badly beaten and the word "fag" scratched into his arms and stomach with a pen. Moments after, Colton walked into a classroom and passed out. Colton has publicly stated that he does not remember the beating, and it is still unclear whether it took place on or off the school grounds. Nearly two months later, his assailants still remain unknown, but city officials in Novato are calling the attack a hate crime.

It wasn't the first time Colton had been jumped. Last September, three young men, also unidentified, beat him up outside a downtown supermarket in early evening, just hours after obscene comments were written in catsup on his car in the school parking lot. Two weeks later, an unidentified party wrote anti-gay slurs in lighter fluid on the family's driveway and tried to ignite it. Colton has stayed out of school since the latest incident, and his father has said the student will probably finish high school from home. Colton's family, which is offering a $7,000 reward for information about the attacks, declined to speak to Salon Mothers Who Think; Colton's mother said only, "We're just quite anxious for the whole thing to go away."

In fact, since the media descent on this small bedroom community north of San Francisco, the Coltons aren't the only ones in town who are anxious for the whole thing to go away. With the horrific death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was beaten and left to die in rural Wyoming, still fresh in the nation's consciousness, the incident in Novato got widespread national coverage. And just as the town came under the media glare, the
parents of four black students from Tamalpais High School, in nearby Mill Valley, filed a class-action lawsuit against the Novato Unified School District and San Marin High administrators over racial slurs made by San Marin students at a basketball game last February. The suit charges both the school and the district with allowing a "climate of intolerance" to persist at San Marin.

Together, the two incidents provided plenty of fodder for press
examinations of whether -- and why -- this particular town is a breeding ground for hatred. Across the bay, the city papers were hot on the story: "Specter of hate" cried the San Francisco Examiner in one headline, while an editorial in the Chronicle -- "Rid Schools of Hate Crimes" -- cited the incident in Novato as emblematic of school violence across the nation. In Britain, the Economist drew parallels between Novato and Jasper, Texas, where James Byrd Jr., a black man, was dragged to death by white supremacists.

Television cameras and reporters flocked to San Marin, a suburban school with 1,022 students. Journalists examined bathroom graffiti, recorded classroom discussions and conducted interviews with students, in hopes of gaining insight into the nation's more insidious and invisible lingering elements of racism and homophobia from the mouths of its babes. The story was particularly juicy because it occurred in Marin, Northern California's notorious counterculture haven, which prides itself on being progressive and tolerant. But within the county, working-class Novato has always had a reputation as backward and less culturally diverse. Minorities actually make up about 15 percent of the town's population, however, making it one of the most diverse towns in Marin.

Now, as the dust from the media flurry has begun to settle after two months, it is unclear whether the intense dissection of the town has hurt Novato's efforts to fight its problems or helped them. On the defensive, the school and town responded with a kind of New Age boosterism: citywide "rallies against hate" and school spirit assemblies
where students were urged to "stop such hateful, heinous crimes" amid chants of "Go Mighty Mustang." Some residents fought off charges of racism and homophobia by shifting the blame to an amorphous group of students known as "the hicks," who reportedly hold supremacist beliefs and intimidate minorities. Yet while it may be more expedient and easier to single out a community or group for condemnation, in reality it seems that Novato is less an anomaly than a reflection of affluent communities all over America that are struggling with changing demographics.

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Like most suburbs, Novato has that manicured idealism that allows few of its problems to show through on the surface. Blocks of tract houses with two- and three-car garages and front yards with porches and potted plants surround the high school. The campus itself is idyllic, made up of single-level buildings that face a courtyard with grass and large shady trees. The school mascot, the Mustang, stares from all directions, and sports fields stretch behind the campus.

Assistant Principal Candace Curtis recalls that when she arrived here in 1995 from her previous job at a high school in Daly City, an industrial suburb of San Francisco, she experienced a kind of culture shock. In Daly City, she broke up gang fights at least once a week. "I could count on one hand the number of fights that we have had here," she says. Her first impression of San Marin students was: "These kids don't know what the real world is.
They're living in Shangri-La! They're back in the '50s." So Curtis took it upon herself to update them. She began to incorporate diversity training into the school, first through staff workshops and later with the kids. "Not because I felt the kids were racist," she adds. "I felt that they were just uninformed and had very little exposure to kids of different cultures." Among the many efforts the school has made during the past few years to expose students to other cultures: Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo celebrations, ethnic dancing, group seminars and showings of a video entitled "Respecting
Yourself and Others," storytelling programs and multicultural luncheons featuring international menus.

With the help of the national gay and lesbian organization Spectrum, San Marin was in the midst of developing a Gay-Straight Alliance when Adam Colton transferred in from a private school for his senior year. Curtis describes Colton as intelligent, highly articulate and at ease with adults. When she met him last summer, Colton asked her if San Marin had diversity clubs and showed particular interest in the alliance. "He said, 'I've decided that I'd really like to be an activist and do something to help make changes at San Marin,'" Curtis recalls. Although a number of students became dedicated members of the club, Colton's leadership skills, verbal openness about his sexuality, "gay-positive" T-shirts and occasional eye shadow made him emerge as its "poster boy."

For whatever reason -- the attacks on Colton or the hostility generated toward the town -- San Marin students seem to have been seriously shaken during the past several weeks. The first time I spoke with Curtis, she had spent the morning evacuating the school after a phony bomb threat. Since February, Curtis claims that students have been streaming into the suicide crisis prevention center at the local hospital. "The most difficult thing to deal with has been the extreme depression of many of our students," says Curtis, whose school provides unusually extensive peer counseling for its students. "There's all this tension and strain on campus." Pressure on the students has actually been building since the basketball incident last year. Shortly before the most recent attack on Colton, a San Marin student brought a gun to school. After a friend found a suicide note written by the boy, school staff intervened and the police were
called in to disarm him. Curtis believes that students already suffering from low self-esteem and emotional problems are feeling added pressure because "suddenly they can't even get esteem out of their school." The school rally was designed to raise students' pride in themselves through their school.

In any county but Marin, school pep rallies might seem like an odd way to fight highly personal problems such as depression and suicide. But San Marin also seems to be grasping for any solution as it has come increasingly under siege. At one public forum, Adam Colton's father, Jerry, publicly blamed the school for not notifying the family immediately when his son's car was vandalized last fall, the day on which he was later attacked. Had the school taken action then, Jerry Colton seemed to believe, it could have somehow prevented the most recent attack as well. Curtis did accompany Adam Colton to the hospital when his parents could not be reached after the beating on campus. But since Principal Rudy Tassano was abruptly reassigned to the district's administrative offices shortly after, she has also been forced to take much of the heat for the school's problems.

This includes its handling of the racial incident at the basketball game last fall. According to the allegations of the lawsuit against the school district, San Marin students yelled "nigger" at visiting black players from Tamalpais High. (At the game, a San Marin administrator contended that they were chanting "Yanger," the nickname of a visiting player, although he later recanted this.) Later, the school acknowledged the slur and disciplined one student, but the parents' suit alleges that an entire "cheering squad" of students in Afro wigs and other '70s regalia took part in the incident.

Further attempts to deal with it by the school and the school district -- after formal complaints were filed by some Tamalpais parents -- also fell woefully short, according to the lawsuit. The district held a forum to discuss the problem, but Tamalpais High Principal Leigh Akins, who transferred last year from San Leandro High School in San Leandro, Calif., said the meeting was unsatisfactory because students and their parents were forbidden to discuss the actual incident. (Under Akins' leadership, San Leandro faced controversy about its Gay/Straight Alliance after a teacher was fired for disciplining two lesbian students who were openly kissing and fondling each other in front of the school.)

The county's athletic league then put San Marin's athletic programs on probation, but the terms of that penalty were "undefined," according to Akins. "Our feeling was: How can San Marin make progress if they don't know what they're making progress toward? How do we hold a school accountable for something if they don't know what the rules are?" Finally,
Tamalpais refused to play basketball against San Marin "because of concern for the emotional and physical safety of our players," Akins says. The two schools continued to play against each other in other sports, but when Tamalpais played San Marin in football last fall, police officers from both cities accompanied the Tamalpais team. This solution infuriated Tamalpais parents such as Ellen Dolores, whose son is on both the football team and the
basketball team that was allegedly taunted with racial epithets.

"I don't want African-Americans to get the message that whenever they show up in a significant number, they have to be escorted by police," says Dolores. "If that's what it takes to be safe, they shouldn't have to play at all." The lawsuit contends that the police escorts are evidence of the school's pattern of cultural insensitivity and practice of "blaming the victim" when racial incidents occur. (The Novato Unified School District declined to speak to Salon for this article.)

Dolores, who did not participate in the lawsuit, sees the explosions at San Marin as part of a much larger problem that exists throughout the county and the nation. "Novato has a reputation for being redneck," Dolores says bluntly. "[But] I think it's a little too easy and a little too comfortable for
people in this county to point their fingers at Novato." Dolores sympathizes with the town residents -- especially the youth "who are being portrayed as racists and aren't" -- but she is also frustrated by their failure to take more concrete action. "All they'd been doing is whining about how they're not racist," she says. "Their task is to stop whining and do something."

Yet others find such condemnations premature and say that the town has been found guilty without a trial. In a telephone interview, Reginald Lyles, captain of the Novato police department, points out that there is still no evidence to confirm that those who beat Adam Colton attend San Marin or even that white supremacist graffiti in the boys' bathroom was scrawled by students. He points out that Novato businesses have contributed thousands of dollars to a reward fund for information about the Colton beating. "A small group of folks are trying to intimidate people, and we don't want to be known for the actions of a very small group," Lyles says.

Lyles interrupts his comments to ask if I am white. When I answer "yes," he seems to feel that he needs to educate me by explaining the situation from his point-of-view as an African-American. The mainstream media's view of Novato as a hotbed of intolerance is "a sensationalist take," Lyles says, one which denies the realities that minorities face all over the country. The town's bigots -- whom he estimates at roughly 5 percent of the residents -- "are no different than mean and ugly folk anywhere." Asked about the "hicks," Lyles says, "I don't want to demonize a group of people without any proof. That would be totally irresponsible."

Jack Levin, head of the Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence at Northeastern University and author of "Hate Crimes," agrees that the events in Novato are more typical than they are unusual -- as is the town's response to them. According to Levin, there has been a marked increase since the 1980s in hate crimes occurring in suburbs and on college campuses, places where minorities and gays have made major inroads in recent years -- and crimes against the two groups are often linked because they stem from the same mind-set. Levin calls these "defensive hate crimes": "The perpetrator sees himself as the victim," Levin says, and sees the victim as the threat to his or her economic or personal well-being. When teenagers take matters into their own hands with verbal or physical assaults, they are often acting out their parents' fears.

Novato's defensiveness is also common, according to Levin, because small communities are more stigmatized by hate violence than larger cities. "When a well-publicized hate crime occurs in relatively small community, every resident feels personally involved and personally threatened," he says, "not only by the crime, but also by the response to the crime in the media." No one wants their town to be known for bigotry, so people rush to defend their communities in the public's eye.

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Reading the charges in the suit against the Novato school district, what emerges most clearly is how muddied our perceptions of racism have become. As part of the district's "continuous pattern and practice of racial discrimination and harassment," for example, it cites San Marin's "slave day," in which students dressed in tattered clothes and chains were "auctioned" to other students, whom they were then required to serve for the day. Although certainly offensive, the school abolished the annual event seven years ago. Another incident cited in the lawsuit involves a multicultural exercise popular with educators, in which a teacher encourages students to list what qualities come to mind when they thought of a "black person, white person, Asian person" and so on. The exercise is intended to open an honest, if heated, discussion of stereotypes and perceptions of racism. In this case, the only African-American student in the class accused her teacher of racial insensitivity in conducting the exercise and she was then sent to the principal's office.

In order for anti-gay or racist hate crimes to end, Levin says, it is critical that people from the perpetrator's group -- say, in this case, white, straight teenage males -- speak out against them and lobby for change. Yet in such a charged climate, Curtis says it's difficult to gauge the level of serious racism and homophobia at the school: "Do we have racists? Probably. Are there kids at school who feel uncomfortable with homosexuality? Yeah. Is it a large number or a small number? I don't know. The ones who have been vocal have been those in support of Adam, who've been appalled." Even kids who believe homosexuality is wrong for religious reasons have come forward to her to condemn the attack, says Curtis. And isn't that what REACH, the students' multicultural club, has been trying to do, with its slogans and bumper stickers?

As it now stands, some of the San Marin parents are thinking of pulling their children out of the school. But many of the students I spoke to, while horrified by the attack, seem to accept that there is simply no such thing as a hate-free zone.

"How's a principal going to stop someone from getting beaten up?"
asks 10th-grader Scott Albertson.

"It's completely out of his hands," adds his classmate Evan
Churchill. "He has no control."

Still other students think that too much diversity training is part of the problem. "It's things that you already know," says Heather Johnson, "and I think they're doing almost too much of it. It is a big deal, but they're making it half of our curriculum. I'm taken out of class once a week
to go to an assembly for all this prevention stuff."

In fact, because of the large number of cultures being celebrated at San Marin, this year's "Day of Respect" combined several events into one day, in order to cut down on disruption of class schedules. Rather than exposing students to various cultures by celebrating their traditions, the broad focus was on conduct, on "what's acceptable and what's unacceptable behavior, and how we can create a climate at school where everybody feels
comfortable and safe," according to Curtis.

Yet is it really possible to create a "comfortable and safe" environment and still deal openly and honestly with prejudice and discrimination? How much responsibility can schools take for correcting cultural beliefs and buried hostilities? The woman left with the daunting task of finding the answer to questions like those seems honestly at a loss for what
to try next. "Every time you say something, you're in denial," Curtis shrugs. "I don't think we're in denial. I think we just have problems, like everybody else."

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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