Folsom student said ‘cracker’ in her yearbook quote – and sparked a debate about diversity

Some saw the senior quote as harmless – an attempt at humor gone awry. Some called it immature and inappropriate. Some criticized it as racist.

But no matter how you viewed it, the student’s quote in the Folsom High School yearbook about her “cracker allergy” caused a stir on the eve of graduation last week – and raised uncomfortable conversations about race in Folsom, a community that has been slowly diversifying over the years.

The quote entered the public conversation after Folsom High Principal Howard Cadenhead sent an email to parents last Tuesday apologizing for a raft of problems with the yearbook, printed by Jostens Inc.

Just before publication, according to Cadenhead, a student on the yearbook staff logged into the Jostens publishing program and made five unauthorized changes, including omitting several students’ photos and changing others’ names – some in offensive ways, according to school officials.

The changes weren’t noticed until the yearbooks were delivered to Folsom High for distribution. The student responsible had already transferred out of the district, officials said. Most of the problems were corrected before yearbooks were distributed.

But Cadenhead said a separate problem went unnoticed: the senior quote, in which a student said: “Going to this school helped me discover my cracker allergy.”

Cadenhead said the quote, by a black student, was “racial in nature and was highly inappropriate.”

The term “cracker” generally refers to the poor white class. School officials said the term should never have made it into the yearbook.

Students submit senior quotes in December. School officials said it’s not unusual to receive objectionable content, but staff, and sometimes administration, review them and reject anything inappropriate.

This one, however, slipped through.

Reaction at the school, in the community and on social media was swift. Some called the quote racist and criticized it as immature for a student on the cusp of adulthood. Others questioned whether she even lived in Folsom.

About 70 percent of Folsom residents identify as white, and less than 5 percent identify as black, according to the 2010 census. About 70 black students attend Folsom High School, making up just less than 3 percent of the 2,400 students who attend, according to the California Department of Education.

The student’s brother spoke with The Sacramento Bee, and said his sister hadn’t expected her quote to be approved.

He described her as intelligent – graduating with a GPA exceeding 3.8 – as well as hilarious and sarcastic.

“She’s one the funniest people I know; very tongue in cheek,” he said.

The Bee is not identifying the student and her family because of her age and because they said they are concerned about her safety. Her brother said they were alarmed by the blowback from some Folsom residents.

The reaction brought back other family members’ experiences of feeling marginalized at Folsom High, the student’s brother said. Family members said that while their experiences don’t justify the senior quote being published, it’s important to understand that different communities have very different experiences living in Folsom.

“These are adults, but they lack awareness in understanding that they actively endanger my sister,” the brother said. “Sometimes I wish they would save that discomfort and offense to things that go unreported,” he said.

The student and her older siblings say they have been targeted in several racially charged incidents on campus. One sibling’s feet were photographed by another student who was surprised that the soles of her feet were white, and another was told slavery shouldn’t be abolished, the brother said.

Several of them were met with praise “for speaking eloquently,” because they were black, they said.

And as the youngest child in the family, attending Folsom High a decade after her brother, the recent graduate’s experiences echoed some of her siblings’: She watched several students chanting and waving a Trump flag on a high school bench in 2016, and over the course of her high school years several students petted her hair, her brother said.

“That’s the same level of interpersonal respect you give to animals,” her brother said. “The only way you don’t know about this stuff is if you choose not to see it.”

Saud Nasiyr, a recent Folsom High graduate and an active member in the Black Student Union, said his overall experience there has been positive, but he has felt alienated at times.

Nasiyr transferred to Folsom from a high school in Marin County, where he once complained about that a haunted house on campus for Halloween was decorated with a white baby doll hanging from the ceiling, painted in blackface.

While that incident was unnerving, Nasiyr said, his former school was more diverse, and he felt included. At Folsom High, he said he often felt racism was more palpable, whether it came from campus security or classmates.

“Some people have been uncomfortable with how I look, how I talk, and how to treat me,” he said. “I have been stereotyped. I have made a lot of friends, but it’s a better environment when there is a lot of diversity.”

Kim Briggs, a parent of a graduating senior and a sophomore at the high school, saw the quote before the school released a statement about it. Briggs, who is white, said she was surprised, because one reason she chose to live in Folsom was the diversity at the campus.

“But if that’s what her experience was in high school, I guess she wanted to use this as her platform,” said Briggs.

Following the controversy, some parents have asked how such an oversight occurred, when senior quotes were vetted months in advance. They said expectations are high for books that cost $75 each – sometimes more if they are purchased late in the year.

Briggs said she saw several other questionable quotes.

“Every year, some trickle in, and I wonder if their parents are happy with it,” she said.

The school is overhauling its entire yearbook review process, including assigning an administrator to oversee the work, according to the Folsom Cordova Unified School District.

“We are already working to improve our editing and reviewing process so we can ensure that these mistakes do not happen again,” Cadenhead said in his email. “I am disappointed that this yearbook did not meet our high standards, but we will work hard to ensure that future yearbooks exceed expectations.”

To correct the errors that were caught in advance, Folsom High student yearbook staffers and alumni spent hours dissolving them with acetone and covering them with stickers provided by Jostens.

Jostens did not return The Sacramento Bee’s request for comment.

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.