POWAY — An incident in which an African-American elementary schoolboy was tripped and kicked by a group of classmates who later described the attack as "a game of Rodney King" is drawing renewed attention to racial tensions at a San Diego area school district.
Gerald Washington Jr., 12, a sixth-grader in the Poway Unified School District, was not seriously injured in the scuffle last month with five white, Filipino and Latino classmates. But his parents said last week that they are still disturbed by the response from the school's assistant principal and the district.
Beatrice and Gerald Washington called Poway sheriff's deputies and reported the attack on their son as a hate crime after they found out that the school had not suspended the boys involved. Sheriff's deputies interviewed the boys, and the school gave a two-day suspension to a youth who admitted to kicking Gerald Jr.
According to sheriff's detectives, the boys said they were "playing Rodney King" but that race was not a factor in the scuffle. Four of the five denied striking Gerald Jr.
At a meeting of the district's board of trustees this month, Poway Supt. Robert Reeves described the incident as "horseplay that got out of hand," and said that racial hatred did not motivate the youths. The boy who admitted to kicking Gerald Jr. has been disciplined and the matter was considered closed, Reeves said.
Earlier, Reeves said the conflict resulted from a joke made by Gerald Jr. before the incident. When discussing Halloween costumes with classmates, Gerald Jr. had said his would be Rodney King Jr.
Gerald Jr. said in an interview last week that he had made the joke about a month before the attack, and that he did not recall it until the group of five boys began taunting him and mocking his T-shirt. The shirt bore the words "King Remembered" and a picture of Martin Luther King Jr.
Gerald Jr. said that the group asked him if he "remembered what happened to Rodney King" and that the beating followed shortly after.
"It wasn't a joke when they were kicking me," Gerald Jr. said.
Gerald Jr. said he is afraid that "everyone is going to think I'm lying" because officials say he was struck only once by a boy who became overzealous during a game.
After being told that the matter was closed, the Washingtons removed Gerald Jr. from the school and enrolled him in a home-study program.
"The district wants us to say: 'Let's put this behind us,' " Beatrice Washington said. "And they want to know why we won't allow our son to go back to school. The way I see it, these kinds of things are going to keep happening. If something like this isn't racial to them, it's not safe to send my son to their school.
"Right now, as far as I can see, my son has no protection from getting beaten up because of the color of his skin."
Tom Graham, a member of the district's African-American parent support group, said of the district's response: "It's always back to business as usual. . . . We're beginning to see a pattern established by this district . . . one in which acts of racism can occur and be labeled something else."
In the last year, parent groups have complained repeatedly that racial incidents were handled insensitively or were ignored by the school district.
Parent members of the district's Human Relations Committee have suggested changes to improve the racial climate on campuses. They have urged the district to hire teachers of color and to help them develop into administrators.
They have contended that the district's teaching staff, which is 97% white, is ill-equipped to serve a student population that is nearly one-quarter nonwhite.
"Every week, it seems like we hear something new involving race," said Linda Jones, whose sixth-grade daughter is half African-American. "I don't think the district realizes the kind of risk it's taking right now. (Having) 97% white teachers is inexcusable. . . . If people start bringing up discrimination lawsuits, this district is in for real trouble."
Reeves told the school board that the district is studying how to pay for diversity training for the staff.
"It's not that the spirit isn't willing," Reeves said. "Our priorities are to figure out how to incorporate these programs and not let the quality of education suffer. These are vast (budget) cuts we are facing."