Gabrielle Sanchez-Goyen, a 13-year-old junior at Holy Family High School in Glendale, had looked forward to the social justice class she had to take this fall. But she had no idea just how painful its lessons would be.
The instructor of the class wanted students to play the "color game," a controversial approach to teaching about racism that involves assigning students to one of four rigidly defined social classes, with the lower classes expected literally to kowtow to the upper classes. Student "police" were named to enforce the rules of the game with demerits and other demeaning acts.
Gabrielle did not want to play the game, which she called "humiliating" and which her parents branded "ungodly and un-Christian." As a result, the Echo Park teen-ager said, school officials are forcing her to leave.
She and her parents filed a lawsuit Monday against the parochial school and the Los Angeles Archdiocese for $2.1 million, claiming emotional damage.
"As far as I am concerned, this is a fascist game," said Robert Sanchez-Goyen, Gabrielle's father. "They can hurt minds with this."
The school's principal, Sister Mary Margretine Smith, acknowledged that several parents had complained about the game, but she denied that Gabrielle was asked to leave Holy Family, an ethnically mixed parochial school in downtown Glendale. Smith, who was named in the suit along with teacher Luis Rodriguez, declined to comment further.
The game was to be played for two weeks in November but was canceled after three days, Gabrielle said.
Developed in 1979, the color game has been played in colleges and high schools around the country, according to Ray Otero, an adjunct professor of sociology at Occidental College who created the simulation exercise for a class on racial and ethnic relations that he teaches each spring.
At Occidental, playing the game is voluntary and students may drop out if they find it too stressful. At Holy Family the game was a mandatory part of a class needed to fulfill an 11th-grade religion requirement.
"It was an assignment to play the game," said Holy Family's Rodriguez, who had learned about the game as a student of Otero's at Occidental. "To just give up was not acceptable."
Rodriguez said he saw the game as a powerful way to help make his students aware of "built-in societal racism" and to dispel the naive beliefs of some of his students. "Some of my kids had the American Dream idea that if you're poor you could make it to the top. I wanted to show that the people on the bottom stay on the bottom, and people on the top stay on the top."
Students randomly drew colored armbands from a bag. Those that drew blue bands were assigned to the upper class, dark green to the middle class, light green to the lower-middle class and orange to the lower class.
Some students were assigned to be police officers whose role was to issue demerits to students who committed such infractions as forgetting to bow to an upperclassman or talking to someone outside one's class. Demerits were used to calculate a student's grade.
Violators also had to pay fines out of fake money that each player was allotted at the beginning of the game, but lower classes had less money to start with than the upper classes. Students were encouraged to snitch on each other if they witnessed an infraction.
Gabrielle said she found the game repugnant. An "A" student who skipped three grades and plans to graduate--preferably from Holy Family--when she is 15, Gabrielle was assigned to the orange class, the lowest of the four groups. She had to bow to and salute students who belonged to higher groups, pick up their trash and let them take her place in lunch lines.
Although she said she understood that the aim of the simulation was to sensitize students to racial discrimination, she said few students in her class at the all-girl high school appeared to be benefitting from the exercise.
"The girls at the top didn't learn that," she said. "They only learned to be cruel. I didn't see what they learned except to be domineering little women."
A few girls who wore higher colors told Gabrielle that they felt bad about having to mistreat the students who wore lower colors. "But they were a minority," she said, adding that most students in the class wanted the game to continue.
Simulation exercises such as the color game have been in use for years, although their merits have been debated. Some psychologists believe that such games can cause psychological trauma and actually reinforce the beliefs that the games try to change.
Gabrielle's mother, Cristina Sanchez-Goyen, said she was particularly offended by the bowing expected of lower-color players. "We do not bow to anyone except God. It's a shock to me that a Catholic school should actually allow such a game to be played."
According to Otero, in the eight years that he has taught the class at Occidental only one student ever dropped out because of stress. For most students, the game has had profound effects, producing insights that they would not have gained in a more conventional course on racism, he said.
"The class creates sort of a mini-crisis that challenges previous thoughts and beliefs. It teaches students to look past color and class and see what is inside," said the professor, who was surprised by the parochial student's criticism of the game. "Christ taught us that we should not judge people by their color. There cannot be anything more Christian than this game."