At Murrieta Valley Unified School District’s June 18 board meeting, the African American Parent Advisory Council for the district called for the resignation of Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Darren Daniel over a scandal involving a racist group chat shared among Vista Murrieta High School students — including the administrator’s son — several years ago and exposed on social media in recent weeks.
Natalie Hartwell, a member of the leadership team on the district’s AAPAC, addressed the racist group chat and the district’s investigation of it.
During the presentation, in addition to requesting a series of policy and procedural changes within the district, the advisory group asked for Daniel to step down, as well as for the suspension of any staff members or administration members alleged to be involved in a cover-up.
Screenshots of group chat between students – allegedly taking place during their time as students at Vista Murrieta High School several years ago – surfaced on social media, causing an uproar. The screenshots of the chat, which involved four boys including Daniel’s son, show several images and statements that are racist in nature.
Valley News has chosen to withhold the identity of the young woman who posted the screenshots to protect from retribution.
Along with the screenshots, the young woman indicated that at the time, she brought her concerns to school officials but got nowhere.
“I showed these messages to people as I didn’t know what to do and immediately received threats from the people in the group chat and their parents,” she said. “I got called crazy and eventually had to switch to online school.”
Daniel’s son, Taylor — along with Daniel himself — acknowledged Taylor’s involvement in the group chat and expressed regret, each issuing a public apology sent to all MVUSD parents in an email.
“The following that I’m about to share reflects the collaboration of our AAAC leaders, parents, stakeholders and staff,” Hartwell said. “These are not just my words. However, I simply ask that you all listen, hear our words, hear our questions and concerns.
“On June 4, 2020, former Vista Murrieta High School graduate shared experiences of online racist rants and derogatory images that were previously posted during their time in high school,” she said. “And the last few days, our AAPAC stakeholders have voiced demands for attention and timely solution to our concerns.”
Hartwell began by presenting a series of questions regarding the investigation that included whether involved parties alleged to have been involved in a cover-up have been placed on administrative leave and whether staff or administration members found to be involved in the allegations will be fired or asked to resign.
“There is a level of mistrust of the investigation in terms of who hired the law firm,” Hartwell said. “Why did the district hire Best, Best & Krieger? Does anyone in the investigation team have a social or personal relationship with key Murrieta Valley Unified School District personnel related to this matter? Is the law firm contacting every staff member who was employed at the VMHS during the time of the online racist, rants and derogatory images?
Hartwell also asked what restorative efforts will be implemented to address the social and emotional needs of the district’s African American certificated and classified employees, as well as those of the African American students.
“What is the scope of the investigation?” she asked. “How is the firm deciding who will be contacted? Who will have access to investigative reports? How will investigation findings be reported to staff and community while the investigation is underway? It’s only right that the staff is placed on administrative leave. That is a customary response to such allegations of neglect and negligence do not subject our families and students to that type of pressure at these times.
“There are concerns over people tainting, interfering, being involved, including during the investigation,” she said. “Acts of collusion and history of cover-up within the MVUSD — who knew what and when? Was it covered up? As a parent with a child on the Vista Murrieta High School campus who has already experienced racism, I want to know when staff members became aware of the online racially charged messages. The level of microaggressions and implicit racism has never been identified or addressed. There is a cancer cluster at Vista Murrieta High School, and it creates a hostile work environment where staff and students will not report or voice concerns.”
Hartwell said the district needs to “break to the cycle of delusions that they don’t know what’s going on, or that they didn’t know it was this bad.
“VMHS and MVUSD staff members who were found to have had knowledge of the racial social media posts should resign or lose their positions.”
Later Hartwell and the advisory group took aim at Daniel.
“We are not asking for discipline to be handed down due to the shameful behaviors of the children involved,” she said. “The administrators and staff members involved were complicit in the cover-up of said behavior. And it is for that reason that we ask that they resign.
“How can a key personnel member oversee human resources where policy, practices, hiring, and firing of employees takes place? If he wasn’t made aware and his subordinates covered up something without his knowledge that speaks to his lack of leadership. If he did know, he was complicit in the cover-up and needs to resign. We in no way believe that he did not know his son was capable of such hatred. He learned it at home. We also don’t believe that he was not made aware of the posts, his son’s views reflect his father’s. These are taught behaviors and views. You were not born a racist. It is learned behavior.”
Because the presentation was scheduled during the board of directors meeting as a report by AAPAC, Daniel was not afforded the opportunity to speak. Valley News has reached out to Daniel, as well as newly appointed district representative Tom DeLapp for comment.
Hartwell also recommended the addition of an application where staff, students, and parents could report issues such as harassment of a racial or sexual nature that is monitored from both inside and outside the district.
“Develop a culture and expectation to empower students and staff to serve as an ally and or upstander and report microaggressions, racist or discriminatory commentary,” she said. “There needs to be clear protocol for the discipline matrix. That includes racism. Anti-Black (and) anti-African American.”
Hartwell and the group recommended forming a committee to address curriculum development within the district to incorporate more African American content. They also asked the district to focus on hiring practices that more accurately reflect the students and families within the district, especially those of African American descent.
“(AAPAC) members don’t feel as if the district has taken their concerns in the past and applied them effectively,” Hartwell said. “But now we are dealing with the need to scrub the administration and begin anew.
“Those in the surrounding communities are watching and taking notes as to how the district and the board will handle this situation. There is already a level of mistrust at Murrieta Valley Unified School District regarding racism by the black and African American families. There will continue to be a level of mistrust if any staff or administrators are found to be involved and there are no consequences.”
She went on to say that members of AAPAC were not surprised by the language and images shared in the group chat and Hartwell shared other racist and offensive statements conveyed to them by their children.
“There’s a concern that nothing will come of this, it will get brushed under the rug even when we see the information with our own eyes,” Hartwell said. “These children are not lying, Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
“If you can’t protect our black students, how can we trust you to protect all students? We need those of you with the power and the integrity, to take all of this in and determine how you will best serve our children.”
MVUSD Board of Education member Oscar Rivas responded to Hartwell’s presentation first.
“I just want to share and to let you know that I came into this meeting with my ears and my heart already prepared to listen,” he said. “That being said, the comments that were made, the requests, the observations that were detailed are so valid. For me, I feel them to be true, to be honest for the purpose of change.
“I heard your voice. I’m an advocate for change. I don’t listen to opinions and things that have no foundation if they’re not going to support the purpose of working together, collaborating and moving forward. So thank you for sharing.”
Board member Kenneth Dickson said that he felt like everyone has something to learn, himself included.
“We are in a process to evaluate all the information we can possibly gather to bring to the solutions we all aspire to,” he said. “And I look forward to being a part of that in fulfilling the role of a board member. But it will be a process. It is what we are called to do and we need to appreciate the walk that people that have had a different experience have had and all of the ramifications that has for all of us. So, thank you for this opportunity.”
Board member Paul Diffley also thanks Hartwell and AAPAC for the presentation.
“I appreciate the thoughts and the expectations that we received today, and I’m not at all worried about implementing any of these because after all, our motto is to think, to learn and achieve,” he said. “Thinking a lot about this and being able to appreciate the contributions of everybody in this country will help make us one group under God and not individual tribes.”
Board member Kris Thomasian spoke next.
“I also would like to thank the AAPAC members and members of the community who have spent a great deal of time investigating the situation that’s going on in our community,” she said. “The emails and the comments. I know they have talked and listened to a lot of people and that information is reflected in their presentation tonight.
“I look forward to collaborate with the AAPAC and our community to work on solutions to the concerns that have been brought up. I believe that it’s time to make tangible changes for our students, their families and our community. And I look forward to receiving the report on the investigation so that we can continue to move forward.”
Board President Linda Lunn spoke last.
“I’m very encouraged by what was presented tonight in the AAPAC report,” she said. “I think the expectations and recommendations are spot on. We’ve got to have some kind of race relations task force that addresses these issues on an ongoing basis. The independent reporting app, I think is key.
“We can’t just have this conversation tonight, hold hands, have a kumbaya moment and say, ‘gosh, aren’t we glad we fixed all that? Aren’t we glad we addressed it?’ We can’t just address it. We need to fix things.”
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.