Palos Verdes High School sophomore Ife Ibraheem stepped up to a microphone on Tuesday, May 21, in front of nearly the entire school body of roughly 1,600 students, and shared her reality as an African-American student at a predominantly white high school.
“Acts of racism are not something I’m unfamiliar with,” said Ibraheem, who described hearing racial comments since the second grade.
Roughly 65% of the students at PV High, located in Palos Verdes Estates, are white and just 2% are African-American, according to U.S. News and World Report. That racial divide here became the subject of intense media attention last week when a photo spread on social media of two students holding a sign containing the N-word as part of a “promposal.”
The assembly on Tuesday, organized by several student clubs on campus, provided the response. The principal, together with district officials and the president of a local NAACP chapter, have vowed this is just the beginning in a process to grow racial tolerance and sensitivity among students.
“I’m used to the insensitive comments that come from being black, but what happened last week affected me differently,” Ibraheem said.
“When I first saw the photo I sat there in utter disbelief and sadness,” she continued. “My heart broke. I thought, ‘why?’…. Although my name wasn’t mentioned explicitly, or the names of other minority students, we feel targeted.”
The event also aimed to assure that under-represented student groups feel recognized, said junior Kyle Ahn, one of the organizers.
“The events of last week were hateful and disgusting but what can come of this is positive on our campus in the years to come,” Ahn said.
As students heard the stories from Ibraheem and another African American student, senior Akunnia Akubuilo, they held hands and listened intently. A giant banner behind the speakers read “This is the start of something,” while another banner said, “Hate has no place here.”
Students also read anonymous comments from others about their reaction to the photo and what they’ve seen on campus.
Akubuilo said it was shocking to see her school become the center of media attention on Wednesday, May 15.
“It was a surreal feeling seeing individuals from all over the country comment about my high school,” she told her peers at the microphone. “I’ve seen things like this reach the news about other schools but never thought it would come to mine.”
With news vans parked outside the campus on Wednesday, May 15, and a TV station’s news helicopter circling overhead, Principal Allan Tyner was in crisis mode. He said the moment he found out about the photo on social media, he knew it would attract widespread media attention.
A day later, on Thursday May 16, the campus was put on lockdown for nearly two hours after police discovered threats made toward the school.
Trying to avoid an escalation of racial tensions, Dr. Cheyenne Bryant, president of the San Pedro-Wilmington branch of the NAACP, said she wanted to lend her services to the school.
“We are here to disarm,” she said. “Matters like this can get out of hand. Our thing is to diffuse and disarm so that the school is not the target of death threats.”
Bryant, along with a school board member and the principal, toured the school and spoke with students last week. Bryant also attended the assembly on Tuesday and will help teachers with future diversity and racial sensitivity training.
“This highlighted something that I don’t know that we can fix completely but we can definitely get better,” Tyner said. “It’s sad when I hear students talk about things not being addressed in the past.”
Tyner, who arrived as the school’s principal a year ago from Downey Unified School District, said he feels uniquely qualified to address the racial divide. For one thing, is the father of three mixed-raced African-American children.
“We are going to get better as a school and we are going to address these things when they happen” he said. “We aren’t sweeping this under the rug. It’s really important to me as a principal and just as a human being.”