Every year, graduating students at high schools across America look forward to the festivities of Senior Week, but one school has been taking things too far. Since 2009, Canyon High School in Anaheim, California has celebrated “Seniores and Senoritas Day.” Encouraged to don Latino-themed attire, students came to school dressed as gang members, gardeners, and border patrol agents. Some wore moustaches and sombreros; another came as a pregnant woman with a stroller. The tradition ended after the complaints of a former student, Jared Garcia-Kessler, 19. School officials now say they are committed to diversity.
It is stunning that Seniores Day went on for several years before anyone realized it was demeaning to Hispanics. It is even more astonishing that it was a school-sanctioned event. At best, this is a reality check for those who believe discrimination against Latinos is a thing of the past; at worst, it reflects a tremendous lapse of judgment by Canyon High administration.
Canyon High’s superintendent Michael Christensen said, “The district is committed to working with the staff and students of Canyon High School to ensure a positive social climate and culture in all activities.” Yet when Garcia-Kessler first protested Seniores Day, as a student, he was told to “get a sense of humor.” After graduating, he complained again and succeeded in sparking an investigation.
One school board member, Kathryn Moffat, told the Los Angeles Times that “I don’t think what this small number of students did is indicative of, or can be extrapolated to represent, the student body.” Moffat is misguided in assigning blame to students. It is the school’s teachers and administrators who are at fault. They allowed this event to take place on their watch. Even if Canyon High staff pleads ignorance as their excuse, rather than bigotry, it is still unacceptable.
According to the L.A. Times California Schools Guide, the student body at Canyon High School is 55 percent white, and 16 percent Hispanic. Shouldn’t someone have been concerned that Seniores Day was hurtful or embarrassing to Canyon’s Latino students?
The controversy is troubling given the recent social tensions in Anaheim. In July, the Orange County suburb was convulsed by protests following the shooting deaths of two Latino men by the police. There were nine straight days of marches against police brutality as members of the Hispanic community demanded justice. The racially charged environment could have served as a teachable moment for Canyon High, perhaps to learn about civil rights and tolerance. Instead negative stereotyping of Hispanics was condoned by the administration, in the name of “fun.”
Some may brush off criticism of Seniores Day as political correctness run amok. Certainly, there are Hispanic performers such as George Lopez who regularly poke fun at Latino stereotypes. But if there is one place we should insist upon political correctness, it is in a public high school. It is vital to instill solid values in young people before they enter our often irreverent, freewheeling society.
Unfortunately, even in our schools, racism continues to be a reality for Latinos. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently filed suit against a Louisiana district where, allegedly, students were questioned about their immigration status, one teacher called a student a “wetback,” and staffers routinely hung up on Spanish-speaking parents. Earlier this month, a federal Appeals Court struck down part of an Alabama law requiring schools to track of the citizenship of students and parents. No wonder that in 2010, the Pew Center found that 61 percent of Latinos said that discrimination against Hispanics is ”a major problem.”
It is commendable that Garcia-Kessler was willing to come forward and be a lone voice of dissent. His was not only an act of courage but also one of empowerment. The true lesson from Canyon High is that all cultures must be respected – especially in our schools.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.