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Photograph by George Sakkestad

State of Hate: Santa Teresa High School Principal Fredella Stewart believes that graffiti sprayed at her school which contained the word 'nigga' and an arrow pointing to a teacher's name should have been treated as a hate crime by the San Jose Police officer who responded to the call. The graffiti was done on the same night as the school's annual senior prank, but not by the event's organizers.

Fighting Words

Was the aftermath of a local high school prank evidence of racial insensitivity by SJPD?

By Kelly Luker

MARY ANN Webler liked to get to the campus early.

A 20-year veteran, the Santa Teresa High School teacher was walking across her school's lawns around 5:30 on the morning of June 5 when she saw the words scrawled across a wall in the predawn light.

Further exploration around the campus unearthed more physical damage--a broken water main, garbage strewn about, a 5-foot hole dug. But it was those tagged words--one in particular--that left far deeper psychological damage to the teacher it targeted.

The word found on the wall at the high school--"nigga"--triggered a series of events that has led to wildly different interpretations. Depending on who's talking, what followed after the graffiti's discovery points to (a) the San Jose Police Department's insensitivity to hate crimes, or (b) the manipulation of facts by some black activists to promote personal agendas.

This particular graffiti was apparently directed toward teacher Shirley Donahue. In bold orange spray paint, the words "Fuck U Donahue" have an arrow pointing toward them from another phrase: "Thas 4 my nigga."

Donahue, an African American, took two days off of work in the wake of the incident. "I was very much violated," she says. "It was hateful and violent. I was wondering what my kids [students] thought."

For Donahue, there is no argument about the intent or racial slur behind the spray paint. And she and others in the African American community insist that the San Jose Police Department took its own sweet time dealing with it.

Santa Teresa High School Principal Fredella Stewart lays out photos of the vandalism that erupted throughout her campus sometime Monday evening before Webler discovered it the next morning. Ostensibly part of the annual senior prank that many high schools experience, the centerpiece of this one was the attempted burial on campus of a truck stolen from Hillsdale Occupational Center.

According to Stewart, it appeared to be a separate group of kids doing the tagging, although they were there at the same time as the other vandals. One of the kids involved with the graffiti crowd had gotten in an altercation with a campus policeman, also an African American, earlier in the year and was transferred to Oak Grove High School.

When the student attempted to transfer back to Santa Teresa, Donahue started a petition to prevent him from returning. Stewart believes this is why Donahue was targeted.

Stewart was told that the graffiti was not determined as falling under the category of hate crime by the investigating officer. Furthermore, it wasn't treated as a hate crime, she says, until black leaders put pressure on District Attorney George Kennedy.

"Why did the police look at that word," asks Stewart, pointing to a photo of the spray-painted word "nigga," "and not see it as a hate crime?"

Talk Amongst Yourselves

DONALD BLACK SETTLES his large frame behind a table at a local coffeehouse and offers up copies of correspondence regarding the incident.

A former SJPD officer, Black retired in March and is now president of the Southbay Association of Black Law Enforcement Employees (SABLE). A self-professed "pain in the ass" to Police Chief Bill Lansdowne and the brass at his former department, Black begins his conversation with a warning that police administrators will dismiss him because "they'll say, '[Black] doesn't like us.'"

"But my main concern is a gross level of insensitivity [shown] by the responding officers," says Black.

"If they had put in "Goldstein" and "kike" [instead of "Donahue" and "nigga"], it would have been treated totally different," Black says of the graffiti.

Black is highlighting one of the difficulties surrounding a word that conjures images of police dogs, water hoses and Birmingham to one generation while--if one is to trust rap music as a cultural weathervane--apparently being bandied about as a friendly rejoinder to another.

According to Stewart, investigating officer Lt. Ken Ferguson implied this in his interview with her.

"Ferguson began his interview with, 'Could this have been considered less than a hate crime?'" Stewart recalls. "He asked if I understood how the word was used by young people nowadays.

"I understand how 'nigger' was used, but not in a hateful situation, and not toward a teacher," she says angrily.

Compounding that insensitivity, say both Donahue and Stewart, is that investigating officers did not interview either of them until more than a week after the event.

Feelings about the incident reached an emotional crescendo August 16 at a forum called by Principal Stewart, held at Santa Teresa High School. Besides several faculty members, NAACP legal redress chair Nedra Jones, councilor Forrest Williams, councilor David Cortese's assistant, Adriana Cota, and representatives of SABLE were also present. Conspicuously absent was the principle invitee, Police Chief Bill Lansdowne.

Principal Fredella Stewart's husband, Ken Stewart, an SJPD lieutenant and former commander of its Hate Crimes Unit, was also present, and particularly incensed that Lansdowne refused to attend this night.

"He did not agree to meet with us together," fumed Ken Stewart to the forum. "Why is this important? If he can divide us up, then he can tell [the faculty] he was following police policy. But do you know what police policy is?" he asked the teachers present, who responded with a shake of their heads.

But it soon became clear that the teachers, mostly older and white, did not know what the facts were, either.

Webler said she attended to pressure the absent police chief to consider the graffiti incident a hate crime. But the responsible parties were already charged with committing a hate crime well before the date of the meeting. Interviews with three separate police officials, one of them black, indicate that the graffiti was being investigated as a hate crime within 24 hours of its discovery.

Donald Black and Ken and Fredella Stewart stated repeatedly that the only reason it was charged as a hate crime is because black activists put pressure on the district attorney.

Ken Stewart informed them that things should work differently.

"When the officers get there [to the crime scene], they put down the charges and the bail," explains Lt. Stewart. "It's not up to the DA to decide." Later, Jones handed out complaint forms. Most of the faculty took one, following the statement by Stewart that "we were all violated [by the incident]."

Just the Facts

A few days later Black describes the meeting as "incredibly productive."

Contacted by phone, Lansdowne explains that both Fredella and Ken Stewart knew that he would not be attending the public forum.

"When they originally contacted me," says Lansdowne, "they understood that I can't discuss a case that is currently being prosecuted against juveniles or that involves personnel matters in an open forum.

"Ken asked me and I agreed to meet with representatives of SABLE, NAACP and faculty members individually, but not with the members of the public."

OK, so what about how a hate crime is handled?

"Here's how it goes," the chief explains. "The officer makes the report, puts down what he thinks the charges should be, which then goes to the detective, which then goes with a recommendation to the DA, who files charges."

Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu also snorts at the notion that her office only filed hate crime charges because of pressure from black activists.

"We have never issued cases in response to the community. We issued the hate crime on the facts of the case."

Sinunu also says that the initial charges listed by the first cops on the scene are often different than the charges the DA eventually files.

"That wouldn't mean anything if they didn't list it as a hate crime," Sinunu explains. "You often can't tell right away if something's a hate crime. It's not that simplistic."

Sinunu says she also received a call from Jones asking that criminal charges be brought against the police officers for not "following policy."

"The call really surprised me," says Sinunu. "I had no idea that anyone was displeased with the San Jose Police Department over this.

"It was a convoluted case," she continues. "There was so much going on. But [SJPD] brought a case to us that we were able to issue."

Time Out

WHAT ABOUT the lapse in time before either Donahue or Stewart were interviewed?

"We made several appointments and Mrs. Stewart canceled them because she didn't have time," responds Lansdowne.

Capt. Scott Seaman, acting deputy chief of the Bureau of Investigations, admits that interviews were not done immediately.

"Some time did go by [before the interviews with the victims]," says Seaman, "but I'd like that considered in the context of the investigation. We had been talking to Mrs. Stewart and she was very interested that we find the kids [who did this]. We didn't have a full sit-down interview with her, [but] it wasn't out of lack of sensitivity; it was out of pursuit of trying to solve who did this."

Although mistakes were made, it appears that the SJPD caught itself and fixed the mess as best it could. So why the escalating war of words over this particular incident?

"It's a personal agenda," states Lansdowne flatly.

Although the chief refused to go on record about whose agenda he's referring to, several people confirm that Donald Black has had serious complaints about the SJPD for many years.

In 1991, Black was part of a lawsuit by four officers against the SJPD, alleging racial bias. Black believed that he was passed over for positions on elite units such as sexual assault, robbery and homicide because of his ethnicity.

Indeed, Black comes across as bitter, barely containing his anger at a system that he feels wronged him. Twice in our conversation and once at the public forum, Black framed his length of tenure at SJPD in years, months, weeks, days, hours--even in minutes.

Capt. Randall Cooper, in charge of the SJPD Southern Division, where the incident took place, is an African American and admits that had he responded to the crime scene, he may have handled it differently.

"But sometimes you got all this rap music coming out and [the n-word] gets confusing," says Cooper. "So, nobody's perfect."

Cooper reiterates that the responding officer could have misinterpreted the graffiti, but the captain points out, "When the concerns [about lack of sensitivity on the part of the responding officer] were brought to our organization, we addressed it."

Lt. Derek Edwards, also an African American, is area commander of the SJPD's Southern Division. He admits that he doesn't always support his chief, but says of his department, "I know this organization, and the majority of the time we're extremely sensitive to the needs of the community."

He emphasizes that he is not slighting the damage done to the victim in any way, but adds, "Some of the people involved may have another motivation."

Edwards continues, "At times, racial issues are very difficult throughout all the high schools. So why are we emphasizing so much on this particular high school? That would be the question I would ask."

He chooses not to comment when asked if he is drawing a line between principal Fredella Stewart and her spouse, Ken.

Perhaps the SJPD could have responded with more sensitivity after discovering the racist graffiti. But was their response--or lack of it--racist?

"Racism is a national problem," says Lt. Edwards. "But is every incident that happens proof of that?"

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From the September 6-12, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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