A bizarre antigay hate crime stuns SF’s premier public high school — and the administration tries to keep it quiet
By Amanda Witherell
It was a little after 6 o’clock on the morning of Sept. 21 when Naomi Okada arrived to start her day at Lowell High School. The Japanese language teacher is often at work early, and after a short wait a custodian let her into the building. Okada made her way down the quiet, empty halls of the school and up a stairwell to the second floor, where she unlocked the door of the World Language Department office. She dropped her things by her desk, one among more than a dozen belonging to the language teachers who share space in the large office. As she entered the nearby kitchen to brew a pot of coffee, John Raya’s desk, in the corner by the door, caught her attention.
“I noticed there was paint all over his computer,” Okada told the Guardian. “My first impression was that it looked like a bucket of paint was poured over it.” Thick streams of pink liquid dripped from the monitor onto the keyboard and were splattered on the wall behind the desk and the chair in front of it.
She thought this might have been an accident, but since Raya was also an early riser and usually came in about a half hour after her, she decided to go look for him. She walked quickly down the hallway, past Spirit Week posters painted the same shade of pink, to Raya’s classroom. It was still locked. Moments later she ran into him in the hallway, and together they went back to the office.
Okada hadn’t yet passed close enough to the desk to see a note propped on the keyboard. It was Raya who would first read what it said:
“Big mouth fag!!!!! You start too much trouble in this department!!!! Mind your fucking business and go back to New York!!!!! Or Cuba or wherever the fuck you come from!!!!!”
“I was stunned,” Raya told us. “It didn’t hit me in the beginning. It was just bizarre. It didn’t make sense. And then the reality hit.”
Raya thinks the pink paint was chosen because he is gay and the words because he’s been speaking up about problems he sees in the language department in which he has taught French and Spanish for almost 20 years.
Soon the school’s interim principal, Amy Hansen, and assistant principal Peter Van Court would have the room closed off and guarded by security. John Scully, the police officer assigned to the school, would arrive to gather evidence that might identify who committed the hate crime.
And all of that would take just a few hours. The destroyed keyboard and desk chair would be removed and replaced. The paint would be wiped up, leaving spare vestiges of pink in the seams of the computer monitor and on the chalk tray behind it. By lunchtime it would seem as though this had never happened — and most of the school would still be unaware that it had.
Later, Inspector Milanda Moore of the San Francisco Police Department’s hate crimes unit would be assigned to the case, and Raya would ask her why a crime lab was not brought in. “She said that was Mr. Scully’s call,” Raya said.
“We didn’t really have a lot of evidence,” Scully told us. “I guess it’s a computer office classroom,” he said, misidentifying the room. “A lot of people touch computers. It would be hard to get a good fingerprint. I didn’t see the point.” He said rooms that see a lot of use and are heavily trafficked by kids are hard to fingerprint.
This, however, isn’t one of those rooms. It’s an office to which only faculty and administration have keys and access, and students are strictly forbidden from entering without supervision. And when Okada arrived for work early that morning, the door was locked, the lock was functioning fine, and there was no sign of a forced entry.
That’s led Raya and others at Lowell to a truly disturbing conclusion: the hate crime was committed, they suggest, not by a disgruntled student or misguided prankster but by a member of the faculty or an administrator.
If that’s true, then Lowell — the city’s premier public high school, a place that wins awards for its teaching and is lauded for its tolerant attitudes — has a staff member who has resorted to the sort of racist, homophobic act that’s rarely seen in San Francisco workplaces these days. And he or she still hasn’t been caught.
In fact, one of the oddest elements of this entire episode — and the fact that makes it more than a passing story of poor behavior — is the way the school administration has seemed to go out of its way to keep the whole thing under wraps. Students were never formally told what happened. Faculty were discouraged from discussing it. The student paper, the Lowell, was scolded for daring to print a story about it. Other than a student-organized response, there was no attempt to use the incident as a learning experience.
Some school officials are unhappy that the administration kept this so quiet. “I think that’s totally inappropriate,” Sarah Lipson, vice president of the Board of Education, told us. “We’ve tried so hard to be transparent. If you have no idea where this is coming from, you have to err on the side of transparency.”
And when we started to look into the crime, we discovered that it wasn’t an isolated event. The language department at Lowell is such a mess that a specialist in nonviolent communication has been hired to mediate. “It’s a very hot, polarized situation,” said Lynda Smith, a consultant with Bay Area Nonviolent Communication who works with couples and groups and teaches classes at San Quentin. “In my experience, the tension and the lack of trust in this department is one of the more extreme situations that I’ve encountered.”
The situation is raising some deep-seated questions about the way one of the nation’s top public high schools is managed.
Lowell is the kind of academic institution that inspires faith in the public school system. Last May, Newsweek ranked it 26 out of 1,200 top public schools in the country. Each year nearly 3,000 of San Francisco’s intellectually elite eighth graders vie for the 600 open slots, facing academic standards more rigid than those of any other high school in the city. The list of alumni is thick with Rhodes scholars and Nobel Prize winners, Beltway press secretaries and Ivy League college presidents.
The rigorous learning environment means “the students are so academically driven they rarely have time to look up from their books,” said Barbara Blinick, a social studies teacher and faculty sponsor of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). She thinks that’s what makes Lowell “one of the safest campuses in the city.”
“We fight over seats in the library,” student Beatriz Datangel said. “Last year someone got in trouble for throwing a cupcake.”
And Lowell has a reputation for being a safe and accepting place for queer students. “They’re not attacked, they’re not beaten up,” Blinick said.
“I have never been in or heard of a high school with as gay-positive an environment as Lowell has,” English teacher Jennifer Moffitt said. “That isn’t to say Lowell is perfect by any means, but it’s unusually open here. We have several openly gay faculty members as well as students.”
“Last year’s prom king and queen were both guys,” English teacher Bryan Ritter added. “And they both fought over the tiara.”
Which is why the hate crime committed against Raya was so shocking.
“I can’t believe that someone would target him,” Ritter said. “He’s such a nice guy. I don’t tolerate homophobia, and I can’t express how appalled I am that it’s happened in my own school.”
Ritter, like a majority of the faculty, first heard about the incident from Hansen the day after it happened.
Hansen told us she said “this was a horrible act, that it was an assault on all of us and we need to keep our ears open and be listening, because if students know and if students were involved, if you listen, kids talk.”
But if the incident was indeed an assault on “all of us,” the students were not included in that community. No public announcement was made to the student body. The monthly “Message from the Principal,” released just three days after the hate crime was discovered, painted a bright, sunny picture of a day in the busy life of Lowell, with Spirit Week in full swing and faculty steeped in annual curriculum development. There was no mention of the incident of hatred directed against a veteran faculty member.
“It seems to me it’s been downplayed from the very beginning,” said David Lipman, a Spanish teacher. “We were told at the beginning not to say anything to the students. So we didn’t say anything.”
“Somehow,” Lipman told us, “I’m just afraid that it’s not in the district’s interest to find out who did it. And it seems like no one will ever hear about it again.”
The school’s award-winning student paper, the Lowell, wasn’t comfortable with that approach. “The students hadn’t heard about it — that’s why we covered it in the paper,” said Ritter, who’s also faculty sponsor for the monthly publication.
Raya was very willing to talk about the crime with reporter Cynthia Chau, who didn’t have a difficult time getting details of what happened or leads as to why from him. Responses from the principal were not as forthcoming.
“She did talk to us, and she answered all of our questions,” said a reporter who assisted Chau with the front-page story. “Except for when it got to Raya’s allegations that were more controversial — when he said she hadn’t done enough to respond to the hate crime, about her showing favoritism, and that he had had a discussion with her about that. She said, ‘No comment, that’s between Mr. Raya and myself.’<\!q>”
After the story hit the hallways, Hansen scheduled a meeting with the journalism classes that publish the paper to discuss their moral obligations as reporters. Though Hansen had issues with a number of their articles, including the one on Raya, the overall impression the classes came away with was that she disapproved of them covering controversy.
“Her recommendation was that we shouldn’t report stories that may have a negative effect,” reporter Jason Siu said. “That doesn’t really work. As journalists, we should report the truth. If it’s happening on the Lowell campus, we should report it.”
John Raya has the quiet presence of the kid who sits in the back of the classroom minding his own business. The only edge in his otherwise soft voice is a Brooklyn accent, which dissolves when he speaks French or Spanish, the two languages he teaches at Lowell. It’s hard to believe he could incite enough animosity to drive someone to commit a hate crime against him.
But at Lowell he’s become the most vocal leader of an expanding group of teachers unhappy about the management of the language department.
Since June, Raya has been writing letters to various administrators and the Board of Education about what he perceives as inequities in the way classes are assigned to teachers and how students are selected for them. He’s been calling for more openness in decision-making processes, for a formal policy on who teaches which classes, and even for the department head, Dorothy Ong, to relinquish her position.
“Everyone in the department was getting copies of these letters,” Lipman said. “There were a lot of them. They were mainly in the weeks preceding the incident. They were about policy, fairness, equity — very professionally done. Your jaw dropped open because they pierced right to the heart. They were like when a senator is calling for the president to step down.”
High schools are often places where petty drama takes the stage as high art, where locker room cliques are nascent coffee klatches and conflict and competition are extracurricular activities. But behind the academic politics are sometimes real issues.
When Amy Hansen left Oakland’s Skyline High School to stand in as interim principal at Lowell for the 2006–<\d>07 school year, Raya was one of the first people to come by her office, a few days before school commenced in August. He wanted to talk about the World Language Department’s “long-standing history of conflict,” she said. “He raised concerns about how the department was run, he felt that he was not being treated fairly, and he raised a number of issues which I took seriously.”
At Lowell the 600 or so incoming students are asked to rank three options from the nine languages the school offers. Like many high schools in the country, Spanish is in high demand, second only to Chinese; more than half of Lowell’s students are Chinese American. Over the years, more sections of these popular classes have been added incrementally, but a concerted effort has also been made to skim off some kids into other, less popular languages, such as Korean, German, and Italian.
Herein lies the rift, which some view as philosophical — but which in practice leaves one person playing God. Every year about 100 unlucky students end up with the second or third language they picked. This balances the class sizes and lets the less-popular languages survive, but critics of the system think it undermines student choice — for the benefit of the adults who teach them. This year three Spanish classes and a French class were replaced with additional sections of German, Korean, and Advanced Placement Chinese in order to bolster the numbers.
According to Raya and his contingent, this was inexplicable, and so much tension existed in the department, they suspected the only reason it was done was to favor teachers who might otherwise be let go if the programs were cut.
“We voted as a department years ago — the languages that don’t support themselves, we’re going to let them die off,” Spanish teacher John Ryland said. Tagalog, Russian, and Greek had all seen the ax.
Part of the problem is that teaching at Lowell is a popular gig no one wants to lose. “There’s always the fear that a diminishing number of students taking certain classes leads to a change in who gets to teach classes and teach at Lowell,” social studies teacher Ken Tray told us.
It’s particularly rough in the language department, where changing preferences can mean the end of a job. “Other departments don’t have competition or concern that there will be enough kids signing up to teach their classes,” Tray said.
Ong, who decides which language classes to save (and who should teach them), denied there was any favoritism. “If you look at the whole picture, what is lost here? Nobody lost their job,” she said. “People can say I favor the lesser languages. I protect all languages as department head.”
Then there’s the AP issue.
Nearly 100 percent of Lowell students graduate, nearly all continue on to college, and the school’s basic requirements are geared toward getting them into at least the University of California system. Unlike many other schools, Lowell doesn’t limit the number of Advanced Placement, or college-level, classes a student can take, and many kids use them to heavily spice their transcripts and entice college admissions counselors.
For teachers, the advanced curriculum of AP classes is a chance to be challenged along with the kids. “Among teachers, there’s no shortage of desire to teach AP,” said Bryan Ritter, who teaches AP English.
And the school is happy to provide as many AP classes as it can. According to San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) policy, for every 20 AP exams that are taken by students, the district will fund one additional AP class. So 100 students testing means additional funding for one new teacher. “At Lowell we make a bundle off of that,” said Terry Abad, president of the Lowell Alumni Association.
The money is deposited in the school’s general fund, but rather than hire additional AP teachers, Lowell’s administrators ask staff members to teach multiple sections of AP classes. By doubling and tripling the number of AP classes one teacher instructs, the school frees up thousands of dollars to pay for other school services.
“From a financial perspective, if teachers weren’t teaching AP, we wouldn’t be able to fund school,” Abad said. “Without AP money Lowell would be a disaster.”
But another disaster is in the works, with overburdened teachers looking to dump classes and underburdened teachers wishing they could have them. “The idea of AP is to give a very intensive college experience and give teachers the time to properly attend to those classes. The whole system has been corrupted,” said David Yuan, an English teacher.
Nowhere in the school is that more obvious than the language department, where one teacher has four Chinese AP classes. “It’s a tremendous amount of work,” Xiaolin Chang said. “I’m hoping next year someone else will teach.”
Hansen said these concerns have not fallen on deaf ears. Two subcommittees have been established for reviewing the numbers to determine classes and another “to create policies and procedures that are written, so that it isn’t ‘I like you, I don’t like you, you’re cute, or whatever, the kids like you better.’ So that there’s some process,” Hansen said.
She refused to allow teachers to review old data to see if favoritism had played into past decisions and defended the language department chair. “I feel that in the limited time that I’ve been here, Ms. Ong deals with a staff of at least 18 or 19, all of whom feel passionate about their language, a complicated scheduling process, and I think she does a herculean task. She has the support of the majority of the faculty, who trust her and believe that she’s doing the best she can.”
Despite the concession to be included in future decision-making processes, Raya continues to wonder why there hasn’t been more of an effort to find out who trashed his computer and to rectify the rumors. “People still think a student did it. I’ve gotten lots of cards and e-mails from people, all supportive, but they keep thinking it’s a student,” Raya said.
But that seems almost impossible to believe, since no students had access to the area and there was no forced entry, “I would be very, very, very surprised if it wasn’t an adult,” Lipman said. “The note said you’re making too many problems for this department — students don’t know that.”
The district hired a private investigating firm, Brubeck and McGarrahan, to look into the situation, and Ellen McGarrahan released the findings of her investigation to SFUSD legal counsel Nov. 20. Her report states that 15 people — all faculty or staff — were interviewed. The investigators were unable to reach any conclusions.
But not everyone who uses the room was questioned. “I’m shocked that they haven’t questioned everyone in the department,” said Lipman, who was not contacted by any investigator. “I’m surprised they didn’t ask everyone what they knew. It seems like that would be the logical thing to do.”
Instead, on Oct. 23, during the middle of the school day, Raya was called downtown by Inspector Milanda Moore for almost three hours of what felt like a full interrogation. “My mistake was I didn’t get a lawyer. I didn’t think I needed one. She duped me. She said it was an interview,” Raya said. He told the inspector he didn’t have a key to the building or any knowledge of the security code to quell the alarm and was at a class at City College the night before and working out at the gym the morning the vandalism was discovered.
“She said, ‘Why don’t you take a polygraph?” I said, ‘I have no problem doing it, but I’ll do it on the condition that every administrator, every faculty member, and every student do it.’<\!q>”
Raya told her, “I’m the victim! Why are you asking me?”
At Raya’s interrogation, one of the letters he wrote to assistant principal Peter Van Court was touted as an example of how Raya was capable of orchestrating his own hate crime. “She [Moore] said to me the language in the hate crime note sounds like the language I used to Van Court in my letter. I said, ‘Excuse me, there’s nothing in that letter that says faggot.’<\!q>”
Inspector Moore refused to comment on this case, except to say it was still open.
Hansen is not a popular principal these days. Since September she’s been “dropping in” on classes for short observations, which she says are a way to get to know the school and encourage a pedagogical dialogue.
In theory, this sounds exactly like what an engaged administrator should be doing — but the practice has had a hard launch as teachers have perceived it as an opportunity for the administration to unfairly critique them at their jobs.
“The principal started off the school year wanting to have this intense conversation about our teaching. Dropping into classes was initially portrayed as a collegial part of an ongoing process of a development exercise,” said Ken Tray, a social studies teacher and United Educators of SF union representative. Instead, the principal’s practice of dropping into classes to casually observe teachers has created a backlash against her style and approach.
“A record number of grievances have already been filed this year,” Tray said. “Last year we had one grievance the entire year, and there were some very serious issues that came up.”
“They’re clearly a lot more than friendly, getting-to-know-you visits,” Yuan said. “There are a lot of people that are unhappy. It’s tense. This is essentially a new policy.”
An unprecedented meeting Nov. 2 drew more than half the faculty to a forum to air their concerns. Their biggest gripes: a lack of trust, a rush to judgment, issues with communication, a sense of top-down management, and a real worry that teachers were being unfairly evaluated, which is a violation of the contractual agreement between the teachers’ union and the district.
“Lowell does not have to be fixed,” Tray said. “It’s creating a faux crisis. What’s the issue here? We have outstanding students doing outstanding work. More punitive measures from the administration seem out of place.”
Some say Hansen may be a good principal who’s just at the wrong school. “I think she’s probably a pretty good turnaround principal,” Yuan said. “Her approach is good for schools with more difficult students.”
“I think everyone is pretty much united,” school board member Eric Mar said. “The principal is autocratic and doesn’t resolve conflict. The principal chosen is the wrong person for the school, and that’s one of the root causes for the conflict.”
November is Transgender Remembrance Month at Lowell. GSA posters commemorating transgender victims of hate crimes hang throughout the hallways, and on a busy afternoon the students rush by them, their arms loaded with books, their ears pressed to cell phones, appearing like the young professionals they hope to someday be.
When asked why the students weren’t informed or brought together as a group to discuss a hate crime on their campus, Hansen said, “We can’t, first of all, have a schoolwide assembly. We have 2,700 kids and we have an auditorium of 900 capacity.”
And she said, “We wouldn’t generally broadcast this kind of information. Whenever a computer’s stolen or something terrible happens, we don’t tend to broadcast it.”
However, the day before the hate crime was discovered, another teacher’s tires were slashed. Hansen went on the school’s broadcasting system, Radio Lowell, to denounce the slashing as an inappropriate way of dealing with anger and asked anyone in the community with information to come forward.
That wouldn’t necessarily be the way to handle a hate crime, but according to other professionals in the field, secrecy isn’t always the best route either.
Al Adams has handled a few hate crimes during his 19 years as a principal, even writing about a 1994 incident at his school, Lick-Wilmerding High, for the National Association of Independent Schools newsletter. He titled his article “When Homophobia Rears Its Head.”
“My rule of thumb with anything like this is to be open and honest and candid about it. That always goes a long way. Make sure the victim feels safe and also search out teachable moments,” Adams said.
“The most effective treatment of a hate crime is to shine the spotlight on it and make the perpetrators accountable,” said Sam Thoron, who recently retired after six years as national president of Parents for Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), an organization he’s been involved with since his daughter came out in 1990.
He said there’s a fine line between shining a light and making too big a deal, but “burying something like this tends to make it worse.
“I would expect the school to make a clear and public statement that this is not acceptable, but it’s awful easy to hide these things.”
Barbara Blinick, faculty sponsor of the GSA, was worried about the lack of candor. “That was a fault. I do think that could have been done better. [Hansen] made a choice not to make it public. But everyone knew about it, everyone was talking about it, and that’s why the GSA wanted to respond.” Blinick spoke with Hansen shortly after the incident and arranged for the GSA to do the outreach.
“The students have been really brave and thoughtful and working so hard,” Blinick said. “We all agree it took too long, and some of the tardiness was that we wanted it to be perfect.”
On Nov. 30, more than two months after Raya discovered his defaced desk, an outreach bulletin written by the GSA was distributed to the students, with a cover letter from Hansen denouncing homophobic discrimination but without specific mention of Raya or the hate crime that happened in the school.
Communities United Against Violence does outreach in the SFUSD through a speaker’s bureau, a program founded by Sup. Tom Ammiano. The group is often contacted by schools after a hate crime occurs, and since 1978 some 70 volunteers have been visiting schools such as Washington, Galileo, Ida B. Wells, and Mission to talk about what it takes to have an open and supportive community, “but we don’t get invited to Lowell,” program director Connie Champagne told us.
“They need to be coming here,” Blinick said. “That’s a really easy way to talk about these issues. They should be hitting every 10th-grade classroom, and I thought that they were.”
The private investigator’s report has been finalized, with no conclusion about who may have targeted Raya. The city’s investigation is ongoing and already reeks of a case gone stale for lack of evidence and witnesses.
Nothing further about it has been said to the faculty, and nearly everyone questioned by the Guardian said they hoped to hear something more soon. Conditions in the department haven’t necessarily improved, and veteran teachers are already looking forward to the end of the year.
“Who did it? That piece needs to get solved for them to move forward,” said the mediator, Lynda Smith, who, after two sessions, was not invited back by the administration.
“I’m so discouraged now,” Raya said. “I’m just at low ebb. I’m really disgusted. I don’t want to leave Lowell. I love Lowell. I’m addicted to Lowell. But the morale is so low I think it’s going to be my time to go. I never thought I would.
“The sad part is it’s not the kids. They’re the ones I will miss the most. It’s sad that this has to prompt me at 50 years old, spending more than half my life in this profession, to decide that this is the time to quit.”