'Just that one word. And it hurt.'
Pleasant Grove High School senior Rachael Francois said she felt no shock hearing her classmate making hate-filled remarks about black people in a video that went viral in December.
Instead, she said, she felt vindicated.
“When I saw it, there was a little part of me that was disappointed but another part of me that was relieved because all this stuff I’ve been saying is finally coming to light. The stuff keeps happening and the school keeps pushing it under the rug like our school is pitch perfect, peachy keen, but it’s not and people need to realize how Pleasant Grove really is.”
For more than three months, the 17-year-old says she has been battling with the school administration to address what she and others describe as a racist culture on the campus that makes the N-word a common occurrence and has left some black students uncomfortable.
Francois said the racist video was one of many racially charged incidents that have happened at the school since classes started in August.
Elk Grove Unified spokesman Xanthi Pinkerton acknowledged that Francois and other black students have raised concerns, and she said the administration has taken steps to address them. She said some students have been disciplined after verified incidents.
Pinkerton said racial issues happen at every school, but not always at the same level. “In this particular instance there was a heightened sensitivity or awareness about it because of the video. If I tell you to look at all the red cars, suddenly all you see is red cars.”
Francois, tall and serious with a 4.2 GPA, said the ongoing racist behavior at Pleasant Grove High has made her afraid. While there have been problems in past years, this year has been significantly worse, she said.
The first time she encountered it was in early September as she walked home alone from school. She said a truck filled with white classmates, mostly boys, drove by.
“I was just minding my business and then a car with a group of white kids sticks out their heads and calls me the N-word with a hard ‘r,’ zooms away, and I’m just there like, ‘Well what do I do?’ ” she said.
Francois said she kept that incident to herself for awhile before sharing it with her aunt, who is raising her after her mother died of cancer when she was 6. She did not report the incident to the school.
“My self-worth was a little bit ruined from that,” she said. “It kind of made me think, like, is this really who I am and what people think of me? It really makes you feel different from everyone else, especially going to a predominately white school.”
Pleasant Grove has 174 black students – 6.8 percent of its student body of 2,544. Whites make up 38 percent of the students, Asians 22.4 percent and Hispanics 18.5 percent. Located in east Elk Grove, the school serves predominantly middle-class families in newer subdivisions and from nearby rural areas.
After her own experience, Francois said she became aware of a quick succession of other race-related events at the school last fall.
Small nooses were found hanging from trees on campus, she said, adding that the security guards and other students described them to her.
A white student entered a classroom and yelled he wanted to “kill all the N-words,” she said, an incident she said she discussed with school administrators.
During an after-school altercation in the school parking lot, a white student allegedly urinated on the car of a black teen who did not attend the school, after calling him the N-word. Francois said the white teen remains at the school.
“I see him every day,” she said. “I don’t feel safe because all these kids are walking around and you don’t know what they are going to do next.”
Pinkerton offered different versions of some of the events.
She said a report about nooses resulted from one student throwing a “small” noose into a classroom. “The incident was taken seriously as a type of expression of hate, which was immediately handled followed by appropriate disciplinary action,” Pinkerton said.
The student who ran into a class making threats and using racial slurs was disciplined, Pinkerton said. The threats were not found to be credible, she said.
She said there was no official report of an altercation in the school parking lot that ended with a white student urinating on a black youth’s car.
Francois said she spoke to school administration about that incident and was told it fell into “gray areas” because it allegedly happened after hours.
Another black student at the school, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears retaliation, said while she was not afraid, the incidents made her feel like an outsider.
“I do feel like ... we don’t belong and we are not part of the school,” the 16-year-old said.
The situation grew so intolerable, Francois said, that in September she and two other black students wrote an open letter to administrators and teachers. The two other teens asked not to be named because their parents declined to give permission for them to speak to media.
In the letter, the girls wrote, “The amount of disrespect black students face at this school is disturbing, and the problem is only getting worse. ... You can stop reading here, throw this paper away, or not, but if you do, just realize that you are now aware of the issues that take place inside these walls and are deciding to ignore them.”
Francois said administrators did ignore them. She said while individual students may have been punished for racist actions, she was requesting broader action – parents, teachers and students being informed of such incidents and education for students about racial issues.
“I asked for the simple request of an education for blacks and whites and any other race on the situation,” she said. She said school officials promised to do something, but never did.
Pinkerton says the letter was not ignored and that the district has increased staff training and created a Unity Group at Pleasant Grove as a result of Francois’ complaints. The Unity Group brings students from diverse backgrounds together to discuss problems and find solutions, she said. The group is run by students, but is led by staff and co-facilitated by community members.
“We want our students to understand the core values of acceptance, individuality and unity before they graduate,” Pinkerton said. “We want them to be participants as citizens and be able to work in a diverse environment.”
Francois said administrators harassed her for writing the letter, accusing her of seeking attention and threatening to inform her guardians. That’s when she sought help from the parent adviser of the Black Student Union at nearby Laguna Creek High School, Joyce Brown, and community activist Berry Accius.
Accius said he and Brown met with school district directors and school officials from Pleasant Grove on Nov. 8, but like Francois, he said their concerns were brushed aside.
“In reality it was all deflection,” Accius said. “Nothing was set in stone.”
Despite their push for change, racial incidents continued to happen, said Francois and two other black students active in the school’s 63-member Black Student Union.
Around October, black teens were sitting at a lunch table when a white student at another table said the N-word loudly, the students said.
“He said the word really loud, like he wanted us to hear,” said one of the student union members who witnessed the event. When some black students asked why he said it, “he said ‘ ’cause that’s what you guys are,’ ” she said.
Then came the video – a Snapchat missive from a freshman girl and her friend, also a Pleasant Grove student, that was viewed more than four million times in four days and gained national media attention. In it, the girl says that black people are “trash” and “need to die.”
Elk Grove Unified responded quickly to the video, ultimately sending two letters to the district’s parents – one that informed them of the incident and one that assured them the students who made the video would not return to the school. District officials would not say whether the girls were expelled, citing privacy rules.
“All reports of bullying, discriminatory, intolerant and/or hateful speech are taken very seriously and school and district officials have been made aware of the situation,” read a letter dated Dec. 27. “The comments made in the video are not supported by EGUSD in any way. This type of expression is hurtful and risks negative impacts to EGUSD’s educational environment and school community. School officials are currently working with the families and the students who made the video to help them understand the gravity of this situation and the consequences of discriminatory and racially insensitive expression.”
The district, which received many outraged emails from across the country, also added security and additional staff at the school in the days following the video. “We were afraid people might come to the school and do damage or students at the school would think there was an opportunity to have a disruption,” Pinkerton said. “We wanted to make sure we would have a safe environment and we didn’t want anyone to get hurt. We knew if we didn’t cool it down we would have a big issue on campus.”
For some parents and the community activists who have been trying to help Francois, the letters aren’t enough. Rochell Pendleton, a parent of a black student at the school, said she had not been told of any other of the racial events at the school besides the video and believes she and other parents should have been. As an active parent, she said, she wants to be informed so that she can be involved.
“For them to have deprived me of being present is offensive,” Pendleton said.
Pinkerton could not say whether the school sent out letters on the racial incidents that occurred before the video, but said the district did not.
Pendleton also said that in the instance of the student who yelled the threat in the classroom, she thinks the school didn’t have the right to determine if he posed a real threat or not, and believes law enforcement should have been notified.
Les Simmons, a pastor who has also been helping Francois, said he also believes the administration hasn’t handled the situation with the seriousness he thinks it warrants, and that the unity group places responsibility for solving the problem on students, instead of administrators.
“There has to be some change in the administration, some change in the staff, to pay attention, to listen, and to respond,” said Simmons. “Asking themselves, ‘what are we doing to wrap our arms around the black community,’ not just disciplining a person for their comments.
“We’ve been called these comments for decades, for generations … and then to hear that our kids have got to go to school and be called n----r and walk home and somebody in a truck is yelling out to them? I am boiling as a pastor, as a leader, as a resident and it’s about time that they pay attention. ... I think if they had paid attention in September when the letter was written, we might be in a different place than where we find ourselves today.”
Francois said the tension between her and the administration has made this her “worst” year at the school. But she’s not backing down.
“It’s really hard, but there’s a real problem and if nobody else is going to do it, I feel like I should take a step up,” she said. “Obviously it hasn’t been fixed because it keeps getting worse.”