Jeff Pack
Staff Writer 

When screenshots of a group chat between a group of male students that took place during their time as students at Vista Murrieta High School several years ago surfaced on social media recently, it caused an uproar due to the racist nature of the conversation. 

Very quickly, Patrick Kelley, superintendent of Murrieta Valley Unified School District, denounced the behavior on behalf of the school district, and all of the young men involved in the chat apologized publicly for their involvement. 

Condemnation of the language and imagery used in the screen shot continued to be strong and emotional. Current VMHS principal Mick Wager turned to social media to express his disdain for the group chat and defend himself against a false rumor that had circulated. 

“I in no way defend or am sympathetic to the reprehensible racist comments made by former students Taylor Daniel and others circulating via social media,” Wager said on Twitter. “I am appalled and deeply offended some would ignorantly and falsely accuse me or my family of having anything to do with it.” 

The more crucial issue in the scandal surrounds the allegations made by the young woman who outed the group, regarding how the school handled the situation when she first reported it. 

Valley News continues to protect the identity of the young woman who said she has a fear of retribution. 

“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. 

“And when I tried to out them, they covered it up and silenced me. The BBC (Bronco Bleacher Creatures) adviser and football coaches at Vista Murrieta High School played a part in covering it up when it began to spread,” she said. “VMHS itself is disgusting for how they handled this. I know exactly all the people who supported them through this. And don’t think I’m afraid to name names. I was torn to shreds for trying to bring this to light and all the supporters of these racists who defended them and stood by them deserve as much backlash.”

MVUSD, upon further questioning by Valley News, said in a statement that they had hired a law firm to investigate the allegations. They sent an email to district parents including statements that indicated that one of the young men involved in the chat group is the son of Darren Daniels, the assistant superintendent of human resources, who also served as principal at Vista Murrieta High School for several years. 

At the time, Valley News requested a statement from Linda Lunn, president of MVUSD board of education, who responded with a suggestion to contact Monica Gutierrez, public information officer for MVUSD.

Questions about interviews, investigations 

Valley News reached out to Gutierrez with a request to interview Kelley and Lunn regarding the investigation and perceived culture issues within the school and the district but neither request has been acknowledged by the district.

Instead, a series of questions sent to Gutierrez in that communication was responded to by Tom DeLapp, district representative of Communication Resources for Schools. 

According to DeLapp’s biography on the Communication Resources for Schools website, he is recognized as the “Master of Disaster” and has “helped school districts successfully communicate” on a great number of issues, including sex scandals, numerous campus shootings, employee misconduct, marketing and branding concerns, student deaths and curriculum battles.

In a media statement to Valley News, DeLapp addressed a few of the topics covered in the second set of questions sent to Gutierrez. 

“With sadness, we are learning about how some of our students have felt the sting of racism in their experiences at MVUSD. We are taking complaints of racist behavior seriously,” he said in his emailed statement. “District leaders are looking into past incidents and analyzing the manner in which we dealt with them. Mistakes of the past must be confronted. They must also be converted to teachable moments of change as we work to nurture an educational community founded on mutual respect, understanding and commitment to end racism.”

Question of investigator’s ‘independence’

Included in that second series of questions, Valley News asked the district about the hiring of an “independent investigator” from Best, Best & Krieger.

According to several teachers at the school, both current and former, BBK has been used by the district in several instances previously. 

Valley News asked Gutierrez, “Considering I am hearing that BBK has a long, paid relationship with the school district (reportedly), can you realistically expect that a thorough investigation will be done that does justice to all stakeholders in the incident?”

“Best, Best & Krieger has a rich history of recognized expertise in dealing with cases of racial injustice and incidents of improper conduct,” DeLapp responded. “It is wrong to assume that simply because the school district has relied on that expertise in the past there is a conflict of interest or that their investigation would reflect any bias.”

According to the young woman who originally posted the screenshots, the investigator attempted to contact her by both email and phone in the days following the start of the investigation. According to her, the investigator indicated that she obtained the young woman’s contact information from the district and requested to interview the young woman. It is unclear whether that interview has taken place. 

Valley News also asked Gutierrez, “Given the closeness of these accusations regarding the group chat to the district, did the district consider bringing in an impartial third party to look at the investigation results, or be involved in the investigation?”

DeLapp did not directly respond to the question; instead, he focused on the credibility of the investigator assigned to the case. 

“The investigator has deep expertise and experience in conducting this type of inquiry,” he said in his emailed statement. “She will conduct a thorough and thoughtful investigation of the incident involving diverse interviews and examination of relevant evidence and documents to analyze the way this chat was handled by district personnel at the time.”

The culture question

The hashtag, #NotMyVista, has surfaced on Twitter and students and staff are sharing stories about their time at the school. While Valley News continues to investigate claims made under that hashtag, questions were asked to Guttierez regarding whether there is a culture in the school’s administration that is troubling. 

“It is premature for the district to comment on the investigation into this incident,” DeLapp said. “We need to let the inquiry proceed objectively and present the findings and recommendations to district leaders so we can take appropriate action. The investigator will be dealing with sensitive personnel, personal and employment matters. We have a duty to protect the due process and privacy rights of everyone involved.”

Call to Action response

DeLapp also addressed a question about whether the district has had time to review the “Call to Action” letter written and circulated within the community by a group of four former VMHS students calling for change within the district. 

“We are indebted to Vista Murrieta High School for being a wonderful community to begin our young adult lives in,” according to the Call to Action letter. “However, we are extremely disappointed, deeply hurt and beyond upset that these values have not been upheld by those in positions of power in the MVUSD both at the school and the districtwide levels.”

The letter goes on to talk about the group chat incident as well as statements made on social media by students who experienced issues during their time at the school. The letter also includes a series of initiatives that the group would like to see implemented at the district level that includes training for teachers and administration officials, a task force and a racially inclusive curriculum. 

“We appreciate the efforts of our former students to engage in a thoughtful examination of the culture and conduct in our schools,” DeLapp said. “We have met with them to listen and to understand their concerns and issues. They have asked us to take this seriously, and that is exactly what we are doing.”

Valley News is in the process of scheduling a meeting with the “Call to Action” letter writers and meeting with more students and teachers with concerns about the history of a perceived negative culture at the school. 

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at jpack@reedermedia.com.