San Francisco’s elite Lowell High School reeling from slurs, pornography during anti-racism lesson

A lesson on anti-racism at San Francisco’s academically elite Lowell High School turned hateful and obscene Wednesday, with public posts spewing derogatory, anti-Semitic and racist messages about Black people.

District officials said they were investigating the incident, adding that it appeared the system was hacked to gain access, although it was unclear whether that was from inside the district or outsiders.

Several students of color said that given the ongoing racism they experience at the school, they believe peers could be behind the attack.

“This is Lowell behavior,” said Shavonne Hines-Foster, a Lowell senior, who is also a student member of the school board.

After an anti-racism lesson, students were asked to share anonymous thoughts and ideas about the information, which were then posted by an adult moderator onto Padlet, an online bulletin board program. But instead of posting thoughtful messages as instructed, some messages — not approved by the moderator — included pornographic images, anti-Black and anti-Semitic slurs and other hateful comments, officials and students said.

One message also attacked President Biden, using a racial epithet and an anti-Semitic word, and saying he should die. “F— him. And F— you,” it said.

It’s unclear how the perpetrators gained access to Padlet, which required bypassing the moderator, district officials said.

“These actions were not committed in ignorance; they sought to perpetuate racism, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy,” according to an email to city and district officials, which Hines-Foster co-wrote with other students and which had the support from the Black Students Union. “Lowell and SFUSD have a history further marginalizing and ignoring Black students when issues like racism and discrimination are raised.”

District officials said they deactivated the forum and notified the district technology staff.

“We are outraged and sorry this happened, on a day of history and unity, and all the more committed to continue our focus on dismantling racism in our community,” said Principal Dacotah Swett in a statement.

Lowell is one of the top-performing public high schools in the country, with an academically competitive admission process.

More than 68{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of the 2,900 students are either Asian American or white, a disproportionate number compared to district-wide enrollment, while less than 2{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} are African American and 12{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} are Hispanic or Latino.

A petition started on Thursday by Lowell math teacher and Black Student Union co-adviser Elizabeth Statmore called for a federal investigation into a possible cyber crime affecting core government functions.

The perpetrators would be held accountable through district policies, or state and federal laws, district officials said.

In addition, counselors were available for Lowell students, they said.

“While we do not yet know who is responsible for this act, we do know that racism persists in our community and is harmful to everyone, especially our students of color,” Superintendent Vincent Matthews said in a statement. “We are committed to finding the perpetrators and ensuring full accountability for this heinous act.”

School board President Gabriela López said it was “sickening” that the students have to deal with this.

“This incident is unfortunately not an isolated one and is an indication of the deeper problems our district must address,” she said.

This isn’t the first time the school has been forced to address racial incidents. In 2016, students walked out of class to protest a sign they viewed as racist. And when the school board voted recently to make the school’s admission process a lottery rather and an academic selection for next school year, many students felt those opposing the plan used coded, racist language.

Hines-Foster, who is Black, said she has experienced many instances of racism during her years at the school and has been called a racial epithet by fellow students. In one case, the perpetrator was only required to write an essay about the origin of the word.

She said she has also experienced cyberbullying, stereotypes and indignities, including one student who asked her if Hines-Foster’s mother, who owns a bakery, made fried chicken.

Lowell senior Michaela Pelta said she wanted the administrators to address the derisive slurs against the Jewish community as well.

“The school has yet to address that this was too an anti-Semitic incident and has ignored the emails of Jewish students,” said Pelta, who is the West Coast Jewish Student Union liaison.

“The Jewish community has been deeply hurt by the neglect we have faced and would like to be heard.”

Hines-Foster said that after initial complaints, the district responded with a form letter saying they suspected the system had been hacked and Information Technology staff was searching for the perpetrator or perpetrators.

In the email to officials, Hines-Foster, Justine Orgel and Lowell students questioned why the district seemed to discount the possibility that their peers could have been responsible.

Stratmore was expected to communicate more fully with the school community about the incident later Thursday, district officials said.

“Placing the responsibility on anonymous hackers completely disregards the rampant, unchecked racism at Lowell,” the email from Hines-Foster and other students said. “Lowell has become a breeding ground for racism. We urge you to consider the likely possibility that these were the actions of a Lowell student.”

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jilltucker

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