“My son loved school and learning. That is until he felt racially targeted and unprotected by the staff and administration.”
Age - late 30s
Benicia resident for 10 years
My husband and I moved to Benicia from Vallejo because of the schools. It wasn’t about safety. We lived in a decent Vallejo neighborhood, and we were locals. I had attended school there myself, and had a reasonably good education and experience. The schools in Vallejo are integrated, and I always felt safe and connected. However, the schools in Benicia offered more resources for the classrooms, and more co-curricular and extra curricular activities. There were field trips and enrichment opportunities available in the Benicia schools that Vallejo couldn’t offer. And so we moved here.
My son started his school career in Benicia. He would come home every day practically bursting with the new things he learned. He loved to read, explore, calculate, analyze and memorize. He brought his joy of learning into everything we did. He woke up excited every morning, eager to go to school and ready to learn. It was a dream come true for any parent, and I was especially proud.
Then when he got to middle school something changed. It started with a juvenile verbal challenge between my son and another boy, who happened to be white. At first the argument was typical of 7th grade boys trying to show off. As it got more heated, the other boy pulled out the racial derrogatives. He called my son the “N” word and a “black gorilla.” My son reciprocated with some angry words of his own, but did not resort to racially based insults. The verbal bashing was eventually interrupted by staff, and the boys were brought to the Vice Principal’s office.
The other boy's mother and I were summoned to the office for a “chat.” I sat there with the woman, the counselor and the vice principal, listening to the boys retell their story. When it became clear that the other child had used racial slurs, his mother became indignant. She vehemently argued that her son couldn’t help himself. She claimed he had socialization issues that were the underlying cause of his behavior. Her argument became so passionate and her demeanor so aggressive that the staff members backed down. She eventually left the room in a huff with her son. My son received detention. Hers did not. It was the first time that my son did not feel protected or valued by the administration.
After that, things started to cascade. My son earned the reputation of being a goofball, and small things began to appear on his disciplinary record, things like, “throwing Cheetos,” “horseplay,” and “kicking someone’s backpack.” Although individually, these things are relatively insignificant, especially since they were done while joking around with his friends, each incident added demerits to my son’s record and his reputation grew. His attitude towards school began to change. He no longer looked forward to going, and his academics began to be affected.
There were more meetings with school officials. Sometimes, the school resource officer was asked to attend. Each time, my son was treated with a dismissive attitude by school authorities. Eventually, he was required to attend a SARB (School Attendance Review Board) meeting for his disciplinary issues. This was presided over by a judge. The judge looked over my son’s school record and kicked it out with a reprimand to the school for wasting his time. It was a small reprieve.
The final blow came when my son was overheard by a substitute teacher teasing his friend (a Black girl) about her weave, which is a hairstyle used frequently in Black culture. The middle aged white woman, misunderstanding his intent, sent my son to the office for “sexual harrassment.” To add to the insult, the substitute confided her version of what happened to a white male teacher in his 30s, who, knowing about my son’s growing reputation, took it upon himself to run an informal investigation. He asked several girls whether they had experienced sexually charged or harrassing comments from my son. I learned this from the teacher in question, and it added to my son's feelings of betrayal and marginalization. Although the sexual harrassment accusation was unfounded, it still ended up on his disciplinary record without our knowledge.
It was at this point that my husband and I made the difficult decision to pull our son out of Benicia Middle School. We settled on a local private school, but my son’s discipline record was called into question before he was admitted, particularly the part about his involvement in sexual harassment. I had to go back to Benicia Middle School to question the reason this unfounded incident was on his record and request a correction. I also needed a letter, clearing my son of this accusation so that he could move on. The Vice principal apologized, made the correction on the school records, and wrote a letter for me; but the damage was already done.
When my son started high school, we decided to give the Benicia schools another try. For a while, everything went smoothly. And then an incident occurred with another white woman substitute in English class. The class was reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which you may know contains some racially disparaging scenes. The teacher was having the students read passages aloud in preparation for discussion. When it came to reading the “N” word, several students, both white and Black, voiced that they were uncomfortable verbalizing this word when the use was clearly meant to dehumanize a Black character. At first the substitute insisted, but when met with continued student resistance, she relented, saying they could replace the unpalatable word with another word, such as “dog.” This upset my son and he spoke up - very passionately, I might add. When he discovered it useless to argue his point more, he took a walk so he could cool off. Meanwhile, the teacher called the office and claimed my son took an aggressive stance with her, and she felt uncomfortable with him being there. Upon returning to class my son was quickly sent to the office. When the administration looked into the incident, they concluded that he was not threatening in any way, but thought it would be best for him to remain in the office for the days she continued to substitute. Even though her claims were unsubstantiated, she refused to admit that she had offered the word “dog” as a replacement for the “N” word, despite the testimonies of several students. My thoughts were, "Here we are again."
The pandemic called an end to the situation. My son did not have to attend school in person for the rest of his freshman or his sophomore year to date. And he has opted not to return for the remainder of this year. We support him. My son’s decision is based, not on the health threat of Covid 19, but on the lack of support he feels from the school administration.
These are only a few of the racial and traumatic incidents that have occurred at the schools over the years. Most have been undocumented without any repercussion to the offending parties. My child, like many others, has been left to filter, process, and internalize his pain and emotional distress, with little to no help from the schools.
I am saddened by and disappointed in the Benicia School District. What started as a wonderful opportunity to inspire and maximize my son’s academic potential was overshadowed by a continued lack of support and belief in my son’s capabilities. He is now another disillusioned student. I know my son is a passionate and intelligent young man, but instead of inspiring and guiding him towards leadership, the system has demonstrated time and again that his Black male passion must be extinguished. I feel like I have sent my child into a hostile environment for the sake of his education. I wanted to send him into a place that would give him the same nurturing guidance as we give in our home but I have been proven wrong time and again. His emotional and psychological distress breaks my heart. And I know I am not alone in these concerns. Many Benicia families of color have similar experiences.
I have noticed the Benicia District and schools taking steps to address the racial inequity and it gives me hope. Children should leave the educational system full of knowledge and eagerness to learn more. They should not leave needing to heal from psychological scars caused by race-based traumatic stress.