Roseville/Placer News

Roseville students suspected of racial hate crime using cotton balls

Roseville police have referred 13 teenagers, at least some of them honors students at Oakmont High School, to the juvenile justice system for a suspected hate crime after they allegedly spread cotton balls across the front lawn of an African American classmate, authorities said Friday.

Oakmont students quickly spread word of the Nov. 23 incident via text messages, leading investigators to the suspected perpetrators, police spokeswoman Dee Dee Gunther said. The cotton balls were “sprinkled throughout the yard” of an African American classmate at Oakmont during Thanksgiving break, she said.

“The family was upset and thought it was racially motivated,” Gunther said.

Brad Basham, spokesman for the Roseville Joint Union High School District, said the district has been investigating and is planning spring meetings for parents and the community on the general issue of racism.

“What happened to this family is disgusting,” Basham said. “Certainly we should know better.”

The family declined to be interviewed. The Bee is not naming the family to protect their children’s privacy.

The district is unable to impose disciplinary sanctions on the students involved because the event occurred off-campus and outside of school activities, Basham said. But he added that some of the suspects received suspensions of up to six weeks from athletic participation because a district investigation found they had used drugs or alcohol before allegedly spreading cotton balls on the lawn. Student athletes agree not to use illegal substances as a condition of sports participation.

“We’ve made it clear what the consequences are if this behavior were to continue,” Basham said.

Cotton balls left on doorsteps of African American residents or organizations in other cities have been viewed as racially tinged and considered hate crimes because they invoke images of slavery.

The family contacted police shortly before 11 p.m. on Nov. 24. The investigation was handled by the Oakmont High School resource officer, Courtney Sens, a member of the Roseville Police Department.

Roseville police referred the 13 teenagers to the Placer County juvenile system on suspicion of committing a misdemeanor by “terrorizing with hate symbols.” The charge is tied to a California Penal Code section that outlaws using a symbol “for the purpose of terrorizing the owner or occupant” of private property or in “reckless disregard of the risk of terrorizing” a property’s occupant.

Roseville police did not release the names of the suspects because they are juveniles. A copy of the referral also was provided to the Placer County District Attorney’s Office, Gunther said.

Students at the Oakmont campus said Friday that many of the teenage suspects are enrolled in the school’s prestigious International Baccalaureate program, as is the student whose home was targeted.

Nicole Herrera, 16, who was not involved in the incident, said that her IB classmates apparently had wanted to TP his home as a prank but decided that toilet paper was too expensive. They settled on cotton balls instead, she said, based on conversations with classmates.

She said several IB students were pulled out of class earlier this month and questioned by authorities.

“It wasn’t meant to be racist,” Herrera said. “It was a joke.”

But Gunther discounted the possibility of a prank. The investigating officer did a “thorough investigation, talked to the large number of people who were involved to determine the motivation behind it. … (The officer) felt there was probable cause that it was directed at the student because of his race,” Gunther said.

Gunther added that classmates had, in the past, used the N-word against the victim online and in person. “It was part of determining whether this was racially motivated,” she said.

In October, the targeted student suggested on Twitter to a white classmate that he not use the word, which sparked a back-and-forth discussion about whether doing so was racist. Another black Oakmont student said this month on Twitter that classmates had used the word when referring to African American students in the past.

According to state data, 3.7 percent of Oakmont students were African American in 2013-14. White students comprised 60 percent, Latinos were 18 percent and Asian Americans 7 percent.

On Friday, some students at Oakmont High School said they knew about the Thanksgiving week incident, although they said school officials have not talked about the case publicly to students.

“The school was all hush-hush,” said junior Yvonne Burton, 16.

Eventually, as the police investigation continued, the principal convened a 20-minute lunch meeting for the IB students to discuss race relations generally, according to Herrera.

Basham said the incident was a wake-up call for the district.

“This incident validates our need to continue to work with our students,” he said. “This is an International Baccalaureate program. They are learning about other cultures. We’re trying to prepare them to work in a global society.”

Basham noted that the school needs to have a deeper conversation on race, including what terms are not appropriate to use.

“For a variety of reasons, some kids think it’s OK to use the N-word. Just because you see it in a song or blog, doesn’t mean it’s OK,” he said.

He added, “It’s not OK for kids of any color to be using that term, because it’s hateful.”

Herrera and her friends Anthony Burman, 17, and Ryan Collins, 16, said they think times have changed and terms once used as epithets aren’t always viewed as racist.

The three students, all juniors, characterized the response from authorities as excessive.

“We have a very integrated school,” said Burman, who is Mexican American. “There are students of all different colors here. So when something happens that is even remotely racist, people freak out.”

Not everyone agrees. Oakmont students since the start of this school year have turned to social media to debate in frank and sometimes profane terms about racial matters.

One Oakmont black student tweeted this month that racism had occurred for too long. He also suggested that black students unite and form an African American club on campus.

The Roseville incident and its aftermath have coincided with inflamed racial tensions around the country after a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., who fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

The cotton-ball incident occurred one night before the Missouri grand jury decision. Police and school officials say they know of no connection between student tensions in Roseville and those related to Ferguson.

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.