A group of more than 100 members of the Temecula community turned out to Red Hawk Elementary School in the afternoon Thursday, Aug. 20, as part of a protest to support Tiffany Suetos, a physical education teacher who said she had been racially profiled outside of that school the previous week.
“I didn’t expect any of this. I wasn’t looking for this,” Suetos said at the gathering, which included TVUSD educators, students and other local residents. “My husband told me this needed to be shared, and I actually listened to him for once.”
The dozens of demonstrators held a brief march around the neighborhood, waving Black Lives Matter signs and chanting things like “no justice, no peace.”
The incident that sparked the protest took place Friday, Aug. 14, when Suetos, who is Black, said she was confronted by a White couple who lives in the neighborhood after she had been given a tour of the campus – Suetos has previously been a teacher at nearby Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary and now works at both Red Hawk and Helen Hunt Jackson elementary schools.
She said she stood beside a wall displaying class mascots before walking down to one of the school’s fields, where she said the confrontation took place.
“I spent 15 minutes maybe at the wall, then I walked down to the field to take pictures of the field to add to my bitmoji classroom, and so as I’m taking pictures of the field, I hear some yelling but I don’t really pay much attention to it,” Suetos said.
She said her phone was about to die, so she tried to hurry taking pictures before she was interrupted.
“The yelling is continuous, so I turn around and I see this lady coming out of her house walking and yelling at me, and she’s like: ‘You need to leave. What are you doing here? Why are you taking pictures of houses? Who are you?’” Suetos said. “And then her husband comes out, and he’s like: ‘Lady get out of here.’”
Suetos said the couple repeatedly asked her whether she was a teacher at the school, to which she responded that she was.
“He said, ‘I know all of the teachers, you need to leave,’” Suetos said, “And his wife is like, ‘Yeah, you need to go,’ and then I just left, and I walked to the custodian and then I just started crying and I was like at this point I couldn’t even believe this was happening, and he consoled me and I just lost it.”
Suetos said she believes the couple would not have confronted her if not for her race.
“I’m a P.E. teacher. My back is facing their house, so I’m not taking pictures of their house. I have my tripod and my iPad – there’s nothing about me in broad daylight that makes me look like a burglar,” Suetos said. “The sad thing is, deep down in my heart I know if I was another P.E. teacher that happened to be White, it would have been different.”
Suetos said she did not take any pictures of the couple. Attempts by Valley News to identify and locate them were not initially successful – however, a man claiming to be the son of the couple confronted protesters at the Thursday demonstration.
The man, who would not give his name and declined to be interviewed during the protest, denied the allegations he said Suetos was directing at his parents.
The man repeatedly denied that his parents had any racist intent in confronting Suetos.
“My parents are not racist,” he told the protesters.
The unidentified man also told protesters they should be ashamed of themselves.
“Shame, shame on all of you for lying about my parents,” he said. “They’re not racist people. I’m not a racist man.”
The man, who is not being identified due to fear of retribution, spoke to Valley News by phone Monday, Aug. 24, reiterating his point that his parents are not racists and that while the husband is Jewish and a disabled Army veteran, the wife is actually Latina, facts that were later confirmed independently by Valley News.
“My parents were not raised by racist people, they didn’t raise racist children; everything that lady said is a lie,” he said. “
The son also said the night of the protest, there was menacing behavior that scared his parents.
“There were cars casing the neighborhood, there was an incident of graffiti, stuff you can easily wash away, but they were trying to be exhibiting,” he said. “The thing that irks me is that they made my mother cry and they lied.”
Valley News did confirm the night of the protest that someone wrote Black Lives Matter on the asphalt where the protest had taken place, though no other graffiti was found at the time.
Suetos said that following the Aug. 14 incident, the school’s vice principal spoke with the couple and that she was interviewed by a school resource officer later that day.
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Tuesday, Aug. 18, confirmed an officer had responded to the incident – TVUSD’s school resource officers are Riverside County sheriff’s deputies – but said a record of the incident “made no reference to harassment” and no report was written, though the family accused of being racists say they have a copy of the report as does TVUSD.
Suetos spoke to demonstrators at the start of the Aug. 20 protest and maintained that she believed the confrontation was an instance of racial profiling.
“I want to be clear, in no way is this political,” Suetos said. “Politics does not involve what just happened to me on Friday. This is just completely wrong; it’s hatred at its core. It’s racism. It’s what many people of color call racial profiling.”
She said she believed the unidentified couple’s actions were a result of “implicit bias.”
“We all have implicit biases that influence our thoughts and our actions. I have no ill will toward this couple, I really don’t,” Suetos said.
Tiffany Gage, an instructional assistant in the Temecula Valley Unified School District who was present at the march, said she knows Suetos and heard from her about the Aug. 14 incident shortly after it happened.
Gage said the protest came together after some other educators Suetos had told about the incident decided they wanted to take action.
“A couple of the other ladies jumped into action, like ‘Let’s have a rally; Let’s march’ and then it just kind of snowballed from there,” Gage said. “On Sunday, we were making flyers and sharing it on social media.”
Alicia Ochoa, a middle school teacher in the district, said she had heard about the incident on social media and wanted to support Suetos, who she had worked with in the past.
“She was just a teacher, just trying to do her job, set up for a great school year,” Ochoa said. “She’s an amazing person. She didn’t deserve to be yelled at like that, to have so much hate directed toward her, just because of the color of her skin. She’s just a teacher doing her job.”
One woman, Kiki Azevedo, said she was Suetos’ roommate in college and drove to Temecula from Santa Cruz to support her.
“Well, it didn’t cross my mind not to come out here to support Tiff once I heard it happened,” Azevedo said. “I live out of the area and do a lot of support stuff there to help support people, and I wouldn’t have not come to support one of my favorite people.”
Suetos said she was encouraged by all of the support that was conveyed to her at the protest.
“I think the situation was disheartening, but when you look around and you see all of these beautiful faces, maybe there was a much bigger purpose for why that happened,” Suetos said. “Me being an African American teacher, I didn’t realize there was all of this support. It surprised me beyond belief. People do care. This is not political; this is a human race issue, and this has been going on, and you have people from all different walks of life and they recognize that this is wrong.”
But for the family, who said they are falsely being labeled as racist, the protest was just another example of how people are being targeted for doing what they believed was protecting their neighborhood.
“You see something, you do something,” the son said. “That is what hurts me so much, people think my parents are bad people that they raised bad kids, and that is not true. They are good people and they raised good children.”
Temecula Valley Unified addressed the incident in a statement Friday, Aug. 21:
“On Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, a verbal incident occurred while a TVUSD employee was on the field at Red Hawk Elementary School preparing a video for her students. Neighborhood residents who remained on their property addressed and questioned the employee. The employee felt the exchange was a result of racial profiling. While the incident Friday does not fall under the purview of the district’s oversight to regulate the actions of non-employees, it is important to reaffirm that it is never acceptable for any person to approach any employee of TVUSD in a way where they feel personally attacked or disrespected, or that is disruptive to the business of the district.
“We believe that all Temecula community members play a critical role as partners in our goal of ‘high-quality teaching and learning for all.’ We deeply appreciate the partnership between our schools and surrounding neighborhoods and wish to continue to promote collaborative communication among all stakeholders. The district and schools have protocols in place to assist residents to make appropriate administrative contacts with the school office should they need to report any issues or concerns. Residents are also encouraged to call 911 to report any concerns of immediate threat or danger.
“As an educational organization, we believe it is imperative for us to foster conversations that bring about understanding and respect. We have and will continue to provide support to the employee and have further requested an opportunity to engage in a mutual conversation to facilitate a restorative discussion if deemed appropriate and acceptable by the involved parties.
“While we are disheartened by the event this past week, TVUSD is committed to our focused work in the area of cultural proficiency, now in its fourth year, and we will continue to ensure equity, access and inclusion for every TVUSD family, student and employee. In June, the board of trustees adopted a resolution to ensure that everyone in the TVUSD school community has the opportunity to learn and work in an environment where they are treated with dignity and respect, free from bullying or harassment. And, further, the resolution stated, ‘It is imperative that TVUSD exemplifies the benefits of inclusivity and acceptance for all members of our community.’
“TVUSD leadership strongly encourages all community members to embrace and support this important work,” according to the district’s statement.
Will Fritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.