The defacing of a Lake Forest nursery school with "white power" symbols and the scrawling of racial epithets in a UC Irvine dormitory room are being investigated as hate crimes, authorities said Wednesday, as civic and campus leaders denounced both incidents.
Ku Klux Klan and Nazi symbols were spray-painted last week on a Lake Forest nursery school owned by a black woman, according to the Orange County Sheriff's Department. Investigators have no clues to who vandalized the preschool or whether that person was aware of the race of the owner, whose school has a multi-ethnic clientele.
The defacing of the preschool was discovered and reported to police Nov. 6, immediately after a staff member found a swastika and two sets of KKK initials scrawled in black paint on the school's back wall and rear door.
Seizing an opportunity to denounce and discourage such anti-ethnic displays, the South Orange County Chamber of Commerce held a news conference Wednesday that was attended by the county's top human rights official, the owner of the preschool and council members of Lake Forest, which will become a city next month.
At the same time, UC Irvine Chancellor Jack W. Peltason on Wednesday vowed a thorough investigation of the racial epithets drawn Nov. 7 on the walls and mirrors of a room assigned to a Latina freshman.
"I find these acts deplorable, and they are especially heinous in student residency halls because these are people's homes," Peltason said. "These hateful acts will not be tolerated at UCI."
The racial slogans, which reportedly included the words "Nigger Lover," followed a series of threatening notes sent to the unidentified woman and a friend, a male sophomore who is black. The notes, written in such a way as to disguise the author's handwriting, called it "inappropriate" for the pair to be "hanging around together," said Dennis Powers, UCI's assistant chief of police.
"The letter said if they didn't stop seeing each other, somebody may be hurt," Powers said. Campus police already were investigating the earlier notes when the epithets were found in the woman's unlocked room in Sierra Hall shortly after 4 p.m. on Nov. 7.
Ironically, the incident occurred as a panel elsewhere on campus was discussing hate crimes and racial slurs as part of the week's Rainbow Festival, which was designed to encourage awareness and tolerance among different ethnic groups.
News of the hate crime stunned the campus community and prompted a student forum Wednesday night on the subject at the Mesa Court housing complex, which includes Sierra Hall, where students choose to live in a multi-ethnic setting.
"I was shocked, absolutely shocked," said Rob Cohen, president of Associated Graduate Students.
"I cannot believe we have that kind of ignorance on this campus," said Cohen, a graduate student in business administration. "In the five years I've been here, I don't think I've ever heard of anything being directed so maliciously at one individual."
The incidents come as reports of hate crimes have surged in Orange County to 34 in the first half of 1991, up from 16 in all of 1990, according to the county Human Relations Commission.
Similarly, the owner of the targeted preschool, the Saddleback Children's Discovery Center, said the choice of KKK and Nazi symbols sends a telling message about what she called an anti-ethnic current rising in the community. Gina Lamourelle said schools, churches and other segments of society must teach children at an early age about the contributions of other cultures.
"In a lot of ways we have been burying our heads in Orange County," said Lamourelle, a nurse and mother of four daughters who has lived in South County since 1975.
Neither sheriff's detectives nor Lamourelle could say whether the graffiti at the preschool, which opened in 1988, was motivated by racism or simply youthful mischief. "I am not taking it personally," she said.
However, Lamourelle said, she has heard more racially insensitive comments in recent years, which she attributes to a continuing influx of people and a worsening economy. "People reach out to blame," she said, adding that the incident reminded her of the antipathy and segregation she faced growing up in the South.
Also present at the conference was Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Human Relations Commission, who said he was impressed by the reaction of the Chamber of Commerce. Such organizations, he said, usually avoid drawing attention to thorny problems in their communities.
"It isn't every day a chamber of commerce in a new community would hold a press conference on something like this," he said. "I take my hat off to them. If you sweep this stuff under the rug it is not going to go away."
Kennedy said white supremacist graffiti such as that found on the nursery school "is not an isolated situation," but instead has become "commonplace" in Orange County.