The pair whose verbal altercation with a Temecula teacher triggered accusations of racial profiling and a protest gathering said they acted out of concern that someone was taking photos of their home, according to a police report and interviews conducted with Valley News.
However, the teacher involved in the confrontation said regardless of their intentions, she feels the couple’s actions reflected unconscious bias.
The altercation took place at Red Hawk Elementary School in the morning, Aug. 14, when Tiffany Suetos, a physical education teacher, said the vice principal and custodian of the school had been showing her around campus before walking alone down to one of the school’s fields where she began to take photos for her online classroom.
That’s when Suetos, who is Black, said she was confronted by a couple who lived nearby.
Valley News has obtained the police report of the incident as well as interviewed the couple involved in the altercation, who would only agree to speak on the condition of anonymity.
According to the police report, the woman who first confronted Suetos said she “exited her residence and requested to know the reason why Suetos was on school grounds, her name, and requested to know if she was an employee of the district,” since it appeared that Suetos was taking photos of her home.
According to the police report, Suetos didn’t answer until the husband came outside and joined his wife.
The woman said due to the distance between her and the school, she was shouting for Suetos to hear her.
The husband said that he has bad eyesight and at a distance of 50 yards couldn’t identify the race of the teacher who was wearing long pants, a long sleeved shirt, a ball cap and a mask but could see a person with a tripod who was lingering in the area and taking pictures.
Suetos said the couple repeatedly asked her whether she was a teacher at the school, to which she eventually responded that yes, she was. She left the area and returned to the school where she told another school employee about the incident.
She said that she was interviewed by a school resource officer later that day, and the school’s vice principal later spoke with the couple about the incident. She said she could not see any reason why the couple would have confronted her other than her race, and some Temecula Valley Unified educators organized a protest in front of Red Hawk Elementary School six days after the altercation to show their support for her.
The woman told the deputy who spoke with her that “there had been burglaries in the neighborhood, and she did not see any form of identification on Suetos.”
Speaking to Valley News, the couple, who was also interviewed with their son, said they felt they were protecting their neighborhood in confronting Suetos.
“Whatever happened to ‘if you see something, say something?’” the son said.
The family also reported that two vehicles lingered across the street from their home for some time after the protest until police asked the drivers to move, and that Black Lives Matter was chalked on the asphalt in front of their home, something they said made them feel intimidated.
The couple also said as minorities – the man identified himself as Ashkenazi Jewish and the woman as Latina – they were equally upset at being accused of racism.
The family said they themselves had experienced racism in the past. The son spoke of his father’s childhood home, bought by his grandfather after he’d returned from World War II.
In 1996, the son said, the husband returned to his mother’s home after being informed of a break in, and upon his arrival, learned it had been “firebombed,” and covered with swastikas and racial slurs, the family said.
To illustrate his assertion that his parents did not act toward Suetos out of racism, the son said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “was always seen as an honorable man in my home” and that his parents “raised their children not to judge people based on the color of their skin, but rather on the content of their character.”
“I believe my parents were in fact deemed guilty until they can prove their innocence,” he said.
To Suetos, though, the couple’s worries about burglaries and their family history do not change the facts of the altercation or the way it made her feel.
“There are racist people within every ethnicity, within every culture, and just because this happened to them, which my heart goes out to them, that doesn’t negate the fact that they reacted off of pure perception and unknowing bias when they saw me, and that perception in turn, it turned into action, which is why they continued to yell,” Suetos said. “So this implicit bias, this unknown bias they had when they saw me, they made this connection that I’m a burglar.”
In an interview with Valley News, the couple reiterated that their concern was that someone was taking pictures that included their home, not her race, which they couldn’t see, and they pointed out that she reported that they were a white couple so she must not have been able to see that far away as well.
However, Suetos said she is not angry at the family for what happened.
“With that said, I still forgive them,” Suetos said. “I don’t think that they’re racist, but I also don’t think that they realized the connection that they made, whether it was consciously or unconsciously, when they looked at me and they saw me and assumed that I was a burglar.”
She said while she had not heard about the couple’s report of vehicles loitering near their home after the protest, she was sorry that had happened to them.
“In no way would I want them to feel uncomfortable like they made me feel uncomfortable,” Suetos said.
And while she said she appreciated the son’s description of how his family had raised him not to tolerate racism, she said their actions were what mattered.
“It sounds good,” Suetos said. “And what I mean by it sounds good, is, we can all read these quotes, we can all put them on posters, we can put them on our Instagram, we can share them with our kids, but until our actions follow those words, we will not see change. Until we realize that each and every one of us have biases that can affect our actions toward one another, we will not see that life that Dr. Martin Luther King painted.”
Will Fritz can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Lisa Winkleblech contributed to this story.