La Jolla principal Donna Tripi hosts racism forum after controversial e-mail

Following the backlash from a cautionary e-mail La Jolla Elementary School principal Donna Tripi sent to parents that made national news, a forum to address racism in the community was held in the school auditorium, Oct. 22. Those in attendance were encouraged to take what they learned, and keep the conversation going.

Moderated by San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) chief human resources officer Acacia Thede, the speakers included Tripi, land-use attorney and former San Diego County Board of Supervisors candidate Omar Passons, members of the La Jolla community, and San Diego residents at large.

The forum was held in response to two parental e-mails, the first of which “unintentionally” depicted an African-American man as threatening.

Sent in mid-September, the e-mail reads: “This morning, a parent came to see me to report an incident that she experienced at a local business yesterday. She was with her two children patronizing the business when an African-American male about 30-years-old, about 6’ 1” to 6’ 2”, dressed in all black and a hooded sweatshirt began staring at her daughter. She became uncomfortable and left the establishment. The man left behind her and followed her across the street. The parent was proactive, ensuring that she went to a place where other people were present before getting in her car and leaving the area. While nothing happened due to the vigilance of the parent, I’m communicating the incident so you can take the appropriate steps to keep your children safe.”

Tripi proceeded to list some safety reminders for parents to follow and concluded: “We’re all hoping it was an isolated incident, but reminders are always helpful.”

She followed up the initial e-mail with one in mid-October that apologized for the potential harm it could have caused. “My e-mail was a mistake. While it is critical to keep our school family safe, the way I communicated didn’t provide enough specifics to identify the individual, but could easily lead to unnecessary and harmful reactions against other members of our community,” she wrote. “African-American males continue to face discrimination in our society every day. The thought that I unintentionally contributed to that climate with a vague e-mail is something for which I owe our community an apology.”

The forum was set so parents and community members could share their thoughts on the e-mail, as well as their experiences with and questions about racism.

“Today is the beginning of our conversation,” Thede opened, and asked for civility among speakers. “One of the most important parts of tonight’s time is that we are able to hear one another.”

Tripi provided opening remarks, some of which included the content of her apology e-mail. She said: “I have been the very proud principal of La Jolla Elementary School for almost two decades. I pride myself on being open and honest with our families. When we make a mistake, we own it and commit ourselves to getting better. … I would like to begin tonight by acknowledging my mistake. Safety and security has to be the highest priority for any principal. … In striving to create a color-blind community, where we do not see race but only see the potential each child brings to school every day, I overlooked the fact that our country is not color-blind.”

She added that she hopes the community will “be stronger as a result of this incident.”

Passons, in his opening remarks, compared himself to the person described in the e-mail: “When I got the original e-mail, it hit me. I’m not six-foot, I’m only five-foot-10, but if I’m sitting down in a sweatshirt and the communication is ‘there is a black man in a hoodie,’ that’s me. When I saw the original e-mail, it punched me in the stomach. We want our kids to be safe, but some of those kids are black and brown. And we want them to be safe. I hope people leave here understanding that, while completely unintentional, an action can still have discriminatory effects.”

The next 50 minutes were dedicated to people posing their questions and experiences. Several of the African-American men who spoke also commented that, based on the description, it could have been them referred to in the e-mail.

A parent of a third-grader asked what it was about the e-mail that was offensive (at which point, several hands went up from the audience wanting to respond). “The bigger issue in La Jolla is the homeless problem,” she said, “and I think the principal has a huge responsibility to communicate with parents about different things that are going on. God forbid something happened to one of the children that day and she didn’t communicate with us.”

As one person attempted to respond, she interrupted and repeated her questions, raising tensions in the room.

One African-American man countered: “It can become dangerous for me to be out on the street and have people assume I’m a criminal because I have a hoodie on. And it happens to us all over this country.”

Passons added that Tripi could have listed the four things to keep families safe without mentioning a description of the individual.

Another parent argued that the description was appropriate and said “in the wake of 9/11, the motto is, if you see something say something” and argued Tripi had no reason to apologize.

One attendee spoke against the concept of color-blindness. “Being color-blind, or when I hear folks I know say they don’t see race, it ignores the experiences and historical strain of our black and brown people in this country,” she opined.

Monoghan Cromeans, a senior at La Jolla High and president of the Black Student Union, said she went to La Jolla Elementary and was one of the only students of color in her class. “I never once experienced discrimination from Ms. Tripi … while mistakes may have been made (with this e-mail), many people in this room misdirect their anger about racism far too often,” she told those gathered. “You’re quick to label a situation such as this as racist, but are quick to turn a blind eye to actual racism.

“As one of the few black students at La Jolla High School, I can speak to personal accounts that racism is prevalent in our community, but most don’t see it, either because it doesn’t affect them or they support what is being said.” She added that she gets asked from where she is bused-in from to go to school. (According to greatschools.com La Jolla Elementary School’s student population is 1 percent black, 9 percent two or more races.)

Several attendees stood to offer a standing ovation following her remarks.

One La Jolla parent — originally from Jamaica — commented that though the e-mail came out of concern for safety, he questioned “whose safety” was being addressed: “I have a son that is 11 years old. … Our son was less safe as a result of that e-mail. I feel less safe because of that characterization. I won’t run at night in this community, and I live here. If I get locked out of my house, I won’t jump my fence.”

At the meeting’s end, the main speakers offered departing remarks and encouraged those in attendance to continue the conversation.

Thede said: “Change happens by the commitment of those who live in the community, who make a commitment to change, love one another and listen, to be uncomfortable sometimes, to make something better. When you put yourself in a position to be a little bit vulnerable, that’s when it can happen.”

Passons added: “I hope this is not the end of this conversation at your dinner tables, PTA meetings, with your children and with each other. Empathy isn’t related to one skin complexion. … We can be and do better. There is empathy in everybody in this room.”

Tripi concluded: “I appreciate everyone coming out tonight. I feel like we are richer for this conversation. We’ve learned a lot and we are going to continue these conversations.”

At the end of forum, several people were seen introducing themselves to others, exchanging business cards and phone numbers, and more.

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