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Systemic racism and abuse of Black student at St. Charles Borromeo School goes to trial

April 8, 2014

by Kenya Ratcliff

Imagine you are young and full of vigor, full of curiosity about life, love, nature and all that surrounds you. Imagine also you are equipped with incredible gifts. You are an exceptional, academically gifted, top-tier student, with an internationally savvy, well-traveled, sophisticated, loving mother from Africa – one of the most active, consistently engaged and motivated parents at your small Catholic school in San Francisco, the City of St. Francis, the most progressive, politically-conscious city in the world.

St. Charles Borromeo School, San Francisco, opened in 1894
St. Charles Borromeo School, San Francisco, opened in 1894
Your school, St. Charles Borromeo in the Mission, is comprised mostly of students who don’t look like you, most of whom speak another language besides English at home and at school, whose parents come from Central and South America. You are governed and taught primarily by administrators and teachers who don’t look like you or share cultural backgrounds or recent family immigrant status with any of the students – they are mostly white.

During first through third grade, some kids say nasty, mean things to you because you are darker than they are, because of where your mom is from and because you are so smart. But Sister Celeste, your principal, intervenes. She even talks to the whole school about how wrong it is to call people names or pick on them because they are different in an assembly one day.

But Sister Celeste leaves and you get a new principal in third grade. You become a victim of increasingly vicious taunts, psychological warfare and physical bullying by a group of your classmates – some of whom eventually include your closest friends. Peer pressure.

“‘We at St. Charles like to do things differently,’” the new principal, Daniel Dean, tells your mom. She politely meets with him the first week of his tenure about saying to you – with no word to her – that you needed to cut your locs, aka dreds or dreadlocks.

“I understand you have something to tell me?” your mother asks. After an initial denial, she reminds him. “‘It gives the school a bad name,’” he tells her, referring to the school’s white regulation T-shirt uniform combined with your hairstyle. To your new principal, this represents a negative stereotype popular in rap music.

They push you, shove you, hit you, call you black pendejo (asshole in Spanish), black monkey, dirty shit, baboon or Rafiki ala the character in the film “The Lion King,” gorilla, Booker T, T Pain and nigger, among other things, and say you are dirty, that you smell and have special germs because of your skin color. They also call you “Medusa” and say your hair is dirty, because you wear your hair in locs.

“‘We at St. Charles like to do things differently,’” the new principal, Daniel Dean, tells your mom. She politely meets with him the first week of his tenure about saying to you – with no word to her – that you needed to cut your locs, aka dreds or dreadlocks.

They take sharp scissors to your hair in class – with the teachers present – and cut your hair to entertain themselves, to humiliate you and show their power, their free rein, their utter defiance even after anything is said to them. Your small school, with one class per grade, usually has at least two teachers per classroom, who witness or are told by other students about these incidents.

You find yourself talking to the janitor at lunch in the bathroom to avoid these students. You maintain excellent grades throughout, but you begin to ask yourself, after some of the most important years of your education go by, whether these tormentors aren’t right, and begin to ask your mom, “Why did I have to be this dark?”

Meanwhile, despite all the witnesses who step forward to protest, all the teachers observing daily what is happening to you, your mother’s increasing demands in person, by phone and in writing for fairness, adequate protection of you and proper discipline for these students, you are just subjected to more bullying. You dread school but do your best to hide this from your mom. You want to be strong for her and make her proud. You still maintain excellent grades and test scores, determined to excel – and to just get out.

The gang of bullies, jealous and enraged by your difference, your steadfast determination and brilliance – which is often praised by your teachers – try to staple your stomach with a stapler, hit you on the back of your head with textbooks, cut your hair, shove you in a trash can, pull your pants down and slap your bare skin in front of your peers.

Despite all the witnesses who step forward to protest, all the teachers observing daily what is happening to you, your mother’s increasing demands in person, by phone and in writing for fairness, adequate protection of you and proper discipline for these students, you are just subjected to more bullying.

When your teacher discovers you in the trash can, she does not bother to ask what happened to you or ask if you are all right, but merely orders you to get out of the can. This final violent humiliation – after which your mom has to take you to the ER to treat your hurting neck and the bruising all over your arms and leg – culminates in your mom’s insistence that you leave the school. She also files a police report.

————

In spring of 2011, a week after this real-life incident, the San Francisco NAACP, including Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown, president, several board members, general members and others show support for Mildred Kayondo, the determined mother, by accompanying her to the school to appeal for a meeting with Principal Dean.

As Ms. Kayondo relates, “Mr. Dean never showed up the day we went to the school with the NAACP. He was on the phone with the secretary, who told Mr. Brown that he was going to come in later that day; and Dr. Brown said, we will wait for him. The janitor brought out chairs and some people sat on them while some sat on the stairs inside and outside.

“The secretary placed another phone call to Mr. Dean and later told us, ‘He will not be coming in at all – family emergency.’ Dr. Brown asked to speak with him on the phone numerous times, but he declined. Father Moises (Daniel Dean’s supervisor) showed up in the car outside. The secretary ran to talk to him outside and he drove off to his office across the street.”

As Ms. Kayondo relates, “Mr. Dean never showed up the day we went to the school with the NAACP.”

Maureen Huntington, the superintendent, responded to Mildred Kayondo’s written letter requesting her help. According to Ms. Kayondo, Huntington told her “she was sorry for what my son was going through, but that if I didn’t like it, I should take him out of the school. This is what she is telling me.”

Ms. Kayondo shares that her son was so academically gifted and tested so well, “they begged me to enroll him in that school. His teachers later approached me, saying, ‘Your son is amazing, but they (the bullies) won’t leave him alone.’”

“I’ve raised my son the best way I know how; he is an outstanding young man. I told him to treat people the way you want to be treated. They invited my child to this school. He took a test and was admitted that afternoon. I did not understand then what I was getting into. Nobody tells you that sending your (Black) child to a Catholic school is a risk.”

Ms. Kayondo, who says she knew the parents of the bullies – since she was so involved with activities of the school, showing up every day to speak with her son’s teachers and fellow students – that she called them directly to tell them what was going on. “This is very painful to me as a mother. I found out many things that were happening only recently, or well after they had happened to him.

“He would not tell me when they cut his hair. I asked my son about this, who told me, ‘When I would tell you, kids would act worse.’” Despite Ms. Kayondo’s attempts to reach out to the bullies’ parents, the bullying continued.

“I’ve raised my son the best way I know how; he is an outstanding young man. I told him to treat people the way you want to be treated. They invited my child to this school. He took a test and was admitted that afternoon. I did not understand then what I was getting into. Nobody tells you that sending your (Black) child to a Catholic school is a risk.”

Says Dr. Amos C. Brown of the family, “There was no alternative for them but to take legal action. This is not the first time this has happened; this is nothing new.”

He pointed out the similarities between the St. Charles Borromeo School case and systemic racism in SFUSD schools, particularly Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. There, Black students have been disproportionately targeted for disciplinary action (referrals to the principal’s office, detention or suspension) while comprising only 92 students out of the 500-member student body.

“Of 649 referrals for disciplinary action at MLK, 430 of them involved Black students. Only six were Asian.” Both Dr. Brown and Ms. Kayondo revealed that nothing much can be done about such goings-on in religious school institutions, due to their special protections, outside of calling child protective services – as Ms. Kayondo was advised to do by then-mayor Gavin Newsom – or the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. Ms. Kayondo says she explored every avenue she could find.

————

On Dec. 21, 2011, St. Charles Borromeo School, the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Principal Dean, Superintendent Maureen Huntington and other concerned parties – teachers, parents of the bullies and other administrators – were named as parties in a civil rights lawsuit filed in California’s Superior Court on behalf of Mildred Kayondo and her son, who is now 14, yet still suffers from the appalling, repeated abuse and indifference he experienced at St. Charles Borromeo.

Attorney Richard L. Richardson
Attorney Richard L. Richardson
The jury trial – after nearly two years of litigation by attorneys Richard L. Richardson and Joel Siegal – is now set for July 14. Over time, as attorney Richardson says, “The parents of the children were dismissed from the lawsuit; these are all working class families, and ultimately the decision was that the school was the primary actor” in negligent supervision, failure to provide an equal educational opportunity and allowing a hostile, abusive environment at the school.

“The mom went to police after the final incident,” Mr. Richardson reveals. Referring to the NAACP’s attempt to reason with the school, “They would not respond to leadership. (Dr. Amos Brown) is a former politician, a respected man. No one ever called him, the NAACP of the board members (to even respond), which shows the level of neglect.”

As to why Mildred Kayondo’s son was targeted, “I can say for certain that based on certain comments the bullies made that this was not a stereotypical kid. … They did not know how to deal with a Black kid who was a well-behaved, intelligent, disciplined, good student,” said attorney Richardson.

Mr. Richardson describes Mildred Kayondo as “international, well-traveled, educated, from a Pan-African household,” which he feels also likely contributed to the bullies’ difficulty in relating to her son. The real tragedy of this case, he notes, is “the teachers’ and administrators’ ignorance of racial hatred and bullying, and the lack of leadership.

“(The school) did not require teachers to educate the students about this. This comes from ignorance, a lack of awareness, which leads to negligence.” Detention was given to two of the six students consistently involved in the bullying, he says, but “this does not qualify as progressive discipline … no documentation of this was provided by the school.”

Also crucial, Mr. Richardson notes, is the psychological impact racial bullying is shown to have on targeted kids, as revealed via a landmark social study, performed amid the NAACP’s heroic fight against segregation of schools, that revealed “there is real damage – a racial inferiority complex” when Black kids are subjected to this kind of environment. “This kid even started to question, ‘Why am I so much darker? I wish I was a different skin color.’ There are real psychological effects.”

As to why Mildred Kayondo’s son was targeted, “I can say for certain that based on certain comments the bullies made that this was not a stereotypical kid. … They did not know how to deal with a Black kid who was a well-behaved, intelligent, disciplined, good student,” said attorney Richardson.

At least four girl students were concerned and brave enough to step forward and go to Daniel Dean, the principal at St. Charles Borromeo, to protest the final vicious, violent bullying of their fellow student, even as teachers ignored the behavior or failed to act.

“I don’t understand how they can throw another child in the trash can in class, with teachers present,” said Ms. Kayondo. “I asked his teacher about this, and she said she did see him in the trash can and ‘did not think much of it.’ Is that the norm? It’s heartbreaking, but I have to be strong.

“People ask me, ‘Why didn’t you kill them?’ My country, Uganda, was a British colony. When we come here, we take that extra step to be different (from negative stereotypes). I told myself, this is the kind of person they expect. I am not going to yell and scream and curse (anyone) out – the Black stereotype. I am going to deal with him (the principal) in a diplomatic manner.”

“I am Catholic. I sent my son to St. Charles because I wanted a school that would cater to his needs. He is academically advanced, very smart. I wanted him to be challenged and engaged. … I wanted to be involved in every aspect of my son’s education. I worked with him at home and was at school every day.

“Some parents and their kids would tell me about what was going on. Teachers would say to me, ‘I don’t know why the kids won’t leave him alone.’ At that time, I did not know the gravity of what happened.”

Amid the recent, hardly-faded-from-memory worldwide pedophilia scandal within the Catholic Church, this case appears to reflect a systemic policy of neglect that extends to the treatment of Black students who are bullied in Catholic schools. As in the sexual abuse cases, Mr. Richardson notes, the church and the school “neglected, denied and suppressed evidence or ignored complaints. They never agree to do progressive discipline. Only until they are punished does (the church) respond.”

The Archdiocese of San Francisco and the named defendants declined to comment or submit a statement for this story.

To learn more about attorneys Richard Richardson and Joel Siegal, visit their website, LitigateforJustice.com.

Kenya Ratcliff is a writer and consultant, principal of Kalioya Politrix LLC. She can be reached at kalioya@icloud.com or via Twitter @kalioya.

 

4 thoughts on “Systemic racism and abuse of Black student at St. Charles Borromeo School goes to trial

  1. Louise

    This is so obvious in the state of California. African Americans have and will have to deal with this issue the rest of our lives. And they wonder why i kids are so angry. All due to thestupidtity of adults. it starts at Home!kids are getting killed every day from this kind of foolishness ..It is a Sorry world of people now that if they knew better would do better. Sad!

    Reply
  2. Not catholic Anymore

    I am a 39 yr old female San Franciscan native. I have also gone to Catholic School from kindergarten thru 8th grade. I have experienced firsthand the racial prejudice and discrimination of so called catholic teachers. I went to St. Peters Elemetary school ( 1st & 2nd grade ) where I was constantly harassed by my teacher Mrs. Reynolds she even went so far as having my desk set outside because according to her she couldnt stomach my presense any longer. My mother arrived at school to find me in this state for no reason at all. I was then enrolled into Immaculate Conception where I was further mentally and verbally abused by Sister Jonelle ( she told my mother I told her I worshipped the Devil (outright LIE that she later recanted ) and by a teacher Mr. Claude Gibney ( an actively participating leather clad homosexual who had free reign over the school and who showed favortism for his male students) .

    Reply
  3. Not catholic anymore

    The Catolic Organization and Archdiocese need to be held accountable for abuse that they have repeatedly swept under the rug. During my time at I.C.E. my mother informed the resident priest and wrote letters to the S.F. archbishop (no response, no care ). The verbal and mental abuse continued luckily I was a very intelligent child and did not allow any of the horrific things my teacher (Mr. Gibney and principal Sister Jonelle) tried to put into my head. He even went so far as to tell me that when I grew up I was going to be a "Hooker". To which the principal smirked. People have been hiding evil intention behind the face of religion since the beginning of time. To all that have had to endure this "STAY STRONG" and never allow man to take away your faith :)

    Reply

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