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On Tuesday afternoon, a student reported seeing graffiti of a swastika and n-word on the wall of the C-Building boys’ bathroom.
After being notified by the student, Burlingame staff quickly painted over the vandalism. When Vice Principal Aimee Malcolm learned of the hate incident at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, she immediately followed protocol to launch an investigation.
“My entire day was spent investigating and trying to find out what happened and get to the bottom of it,” said Malcolm, who will continue to lead the inquiry. As of Wednesday afternoon, interviews with students and parents have not revealed any findings.
On Wednesday, Principal Jen Fong spoke directly to students over BTV, denouncing any hate incidents.
“You are safe here at Burlingame, no matter who you are,” Fong said. “Please let me, Ms. Malcolm, Mr. Bigue, Mr. Knudson, or any staff member know if you hear any incidents of hate language being used or written.”
As the Burlingame community grapples with the ramifications of another hate incident, teachers and staff continued professional development that emphasizes anti-racism in the classroom. But students and staff feel the impact of a seemingly-perpetual cycle of hate.
“I’m honestly not surprised. This stuff keeps happening over and over again and they don’t really do anything,” senior Maria Victoria said.
Student success coordinator Leslie Trevino-Escito acknowledged that Burlingame is less diverse than other high schools in the district and neighboring communities. And that lack of diversity will only be exacerbated by hate incidents that dissuade students of color from attending Burlingame.
I feel like it’s a little bit embarrassing. A lot of us are really mature and when people do this, it represents the whole school.”
— Gabby Vega, Sophomore
“I do hear it a lot from other students saying that they didn’t want to come to Burlingame because of the same issue. And there are some students that unfortunately, they don’t want to be here,” said Trevino-Escoto. “And it makes sense now as to why they want to leave.”
Freshman Alex Ravias is one of those students. She and her parents weren’t sure if Burlingame was the right choice given the school’s history of racism and hate.
“My dad was like, ‘Can you still transfer to Mills?’ Because BHS is, like, discriminatory, towards people like people that aren’t white,” Rivias said. “I was like, ‘I’ll be fine.’ Because the people that I hang around aren’t like that. But the school has a reputation.”
Trevino-Escoto, who is Latina, previously worked at Sequoia High School, where she says that the culture was more welcoming. However, Burlingame’s reputation only made Trevino-Escoto determined to make a difference at the school — to change students’ perspectives.
“That’s what I’m trying to do each and every day,” Trevino-Escoto said. “Making sure that our minority students here at BHS are represented, are being listened to.”
Students also expressed a sense of resignation and disappointment. Sophomore Gabby Vega said she was shocked, but had seen the same kind of speech before so “it wasn’t anything too new.”
Still, it doesn’t sit well that her school will be defined by — and known for — such hateful behavior.
I felt shocked [when I heard what happened]. And I didn’t really believe it. Why would someone do that?”
— Bartu Nar, Junior
“I feel kind of sad. I feel like BHS is better than that,” Vega said. “It’s a little bit embarrassing. Like a lot of us are really mature, and when people do this, it represents the whole school.”
Malcolm, who is new at Burlingame, emphasized the importance of using Wednesday’s incident as a teachable moment — to declare that “we’re not going to be putting such hate language up, we’re actually against that kind of language.”
“How do we take what happened today and not let that continue?” Malcolm said.
But if another hate speech incident does occur, Malcolm encourages students to come forward or rely on Anonymous Alerts to report what they hear and see on campus.
“This was high impact for everyone,” Malcolm said. “I can feel that this has been disheartening. I feel like this is something that shows me and leadership that this is something I need to really continue to work on at this school.”
A History of Hate Speech
On September 24, 2020, the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury published an in-depth report titled “Hate @ Schools — Opportunities Lost,” detailing three specific incidents of hate speech at Burlingame.
In the months leading up to the report, the Instagram account @smuhsd.awareness began posting anonymous stories of racism, homophobia, sexual harassment and discrimination submitted by members of the San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) community. The account quickly gained over 1,000 followers. Students took to the account’s comment section to criticize the district’s lack of accountability and transparency.
Eleven days after the Grand Jury report, the SMUHSD Board of Trustees listened to the concerns, complaints and experiences of students and parents from across the district. The Board immediately took action, launching a thought exchange of “impactful actions [the district] could take to better serve its African American students and families.”
On Oct. 20, 2020, SMUHSD and the Black Parents Association (BPA) held the first Unity in the Community Town Hall to review the thought exchange and consider future initiatives. Since then, the BPA and SMUHSD have held five more town halls to hear feedback from students of color and rework the district’s response to hate speech.
In the spring of 2021, the district began its ‘Anti-Racist School and Community Transformational Journey,’ starting with “focus groups, listening sessions and fact finding,” according to the SMUHSD website. Throughout the 2021-2022 school year, all teachers underwent mandatory anti-racist training during professional development days.
While SMUHSD began to rebuild and reform, the pattern of hate persisted. In December 2021, students from an undisclosed school reportedly “harassed a parent and two elementary school aged children from their vehicle as the family played on a nearby field.” In an email to the district, Superintendent Kevin Skelly reported that “it appear[ed] one of these individuals used a painful racial slur directed at this family.”
One month later, on Jan. 20, the Board adopted a racial equity policy proposed by the Equity Advisory Committee focusing on inclusivity toward BIPOC students, staff and families. The policy includes eight measures to implement more equitable hiring practices and a district-wide anti-racism curriculum, which are expected to go into effect in the 2022-2023 school year.
This article will be updated with more information as the story develops.