Happy MLK Jr. Day? Laguna Beach Cops and School Probe Possible Hate Crime
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Happy MLK Jr. Day? Laguna Beach Cops and School Probe Possible Hate Crime

Here's a Martin Luther King Jr. Day conundrum: Was a teen boy who was born in Africa subjected to a hate crime when he was verbally taunted as watermelon was thrown at his Laguna Beach home two days after Christmas?

Vasco Possley's parents—a respected religion columnist and a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter—believe the boy they adopted seven years ago may have been the victim of such a crime.

The Laguna Beach Police Department confirmed it is investigating the incident that involves five boys who attend Laguna Beach High School with the 17-year-old who was born in Malawi.

So is the Laguna Beach Unified School District, which is responding to a complaint from Cathleen Falsani, an award-winning religion journalist who formally wrote for the Orange County Register and Chicago Sun-Times and is working on her sixth book, and her husband Maurice Possley, a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist who won the award for Investigative Reporting while with the Chicago Tribune in 2008 and now works with the National Registry of Exonerations, a database of more than 1,650 1,966 wrongful convictions in the U.S. since 1989.

The couple, who credit Bono and Madonna with leading them to bring Vasco to the U.S. in 2009 and adopt him a year later, say the five boys taunted their son by repeating his name as they walked up their residential street, yelled racial epithets and threw pieces of the juicy fruit that, like Vasco, originated in Southern Africa, became a symbol of freedom for freed American slaves that grew it and has been a racist trope in the U.S. since 19th century minstrel shows.

From Maurice Possley: "They didn't walk up—they drove up, stopped and at least one got out. BTW, their vehicle was caught on store surveillance at the Ralphs where all five were caught on tape inside the store buying the watermelon (and other items they tossed at other kids, apparently). Their vehicle was also caught on our neighbor's video cameras."

The incident prompted the school district to send this letter home to students:

You may have heard about an incident that occurred over the winter break regarding some LBHS students’ involvement in an alleged racially-motivated act against another student. LBHS administration was notified by police regarding the incident, and has continued to maintain regular contact with police officials as they continue to investigate the incident.

Please be assured that we are addressing this matter with the individuals involved to the fullest extent possible within the limits of our jurisdiction. While it is natural to want to know the consequences of the incident, we cannot disclose further details about any proposed or implemented disciplinary action that has or may occur due to privacy laws.

As a school district, we continue to work on teaching cultural proficiency, including self-awareness of how each student’s ethnicity, culture and life experiences may impact others. While this specific act does not represent the community as a whole, it allows us to use this incident as a teachable moment moving forward. We realize this is an ongoing process that needs to be continually woven into our school and community culture.

It is everyone’s responsibility to maintain a welcoming and inclusive community of which we can all be proud. Working with our community partners, we will sustain a climate that values diversity and fosters inclusion to equip our students with the values they need to be global citizens. While this work is not always comfortable nor easy, it reminds us that we individually contribute to the fabric of our community.

As of Friday, no criminal charges had been filed against the students.


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