A Scattered History of Racial Incidents at Carlmont High

Decades after being rocked with racial tension, Carlmont High School seems like a safe environment for students of color. As far as statistics are concerned, Carlmont’s demographic breakdown almost matches the demographic breakdown of the surrounding cities of Belmont and San Carlos.

The school currently sits at the foot of the Belmont hills, with one of its many unfortunate elements being the amount of stairs on campus. To the outsider, Carlmont can easily be described as an objectively nice campus — it’s far from clean, considering the amount of garbage found littered around campus despite a full fledged compost system in efforts to go green.

Clean, actually, is the last word you’d use if you looked at Carlmont’s history. Ask any Carlmont student, and they’ll tell you that Carlmont is at best, rather boring — nothing ever happens here. But things do happen —or they used to happen. Take, for example, the fact that Bill Clinton came to speak at Carlmont and we collectively forgot about it.

There was a movie about the things that used to happen at Carlmont. (No. I’m serious. There was a movie about it all — it was based on a book titled ‘My Posse Don’t Do My Homework’ by retired U.S. Marine LouAnne Johnson, an English teacher portrayed by Michelle Pfieffer.)

Over the past two years, right-wing parents and students have, out of desperation to unhinge and disrupt the so-called distribution of “leftist propaganda” coming from Carlmont’s student-run newsroom, spread a number of rumors — several about how Nazi symbols had been graffitied onto the field and buildings on campus.

As student journalists, we have responded to claims calling our newsroom the distribution center of leftist propaganda and “ridiculous political indoctrination.” Or perhaps a better way to say it is that we’ve been taught not to respond — there are bigger fish to fry, so to say. But we have responded to fake news on behalf of our school. Fake news is just that — as student journalists we’re held to a certain standard by our student body. Other publications deserve the same.

Out of fear, and perhaps also disappointment, many in the community shunned Carlmont for fostering such a divisive and discriminating culture. And, as a response, many teachers and students turned to cite the inclusion of diverse narratives in curriculums — the notion was that there was no way Carlmont factored into it. But here’s the thing: racial tensions and the uncomfortable shadow of racism and discrimination is no stranger to Carlmont High School and though less apparent than it was during the 70s or 80s, it’s been sitting in the background for the past few decades.

If I’m being honest with myself, it’s a trend that too closely mirrors the state of the U.S. at the moment. “This isn’t American” sounds the same as “this isn’t Carlmont” to me. This is America. This is how it has been — we just haven’t been forced to pay attention for a while.

During the 1960s, white flight from the city of East Palo Alto led to a significant increase of African American students. So much so that the Congress of Racial Equality expressed concerns about de facto segregation in the area. (And as I am writing this, East Palo Alto is witnessing gentrification — a happening all too recognizable in the Bay Area.)

So when Ravenswood High School in East Palo Alto was shut down, students from East Palo Alto began to be bussed out to neighboring schools and communities; to schools like Carlmont High School tucked away in a neat pocket of suburbia.

On Oct. 28, 1997 — over 20 years since students from East Palo Alto began to be bussed over in after the Ravenswood closure in 1976 — an estimated 60 Carlmont students were involved in what SFGate calls “a series of racially inflamed incidents.”

What those racially inflamed incidents were exactly, I’m afraid we’ll never know. Those stories are in dusty newspaper archives I don’t have access to, in the form of local folklore and myth, and far back enough in Google search results that I don’t have the heart to go to.

All I know is that, according to this article from Palo Alto Online, there were two white students suspended amidst racial graffiti and ambiguous obscenities.

And as far as the current Carlmont High School student body is concerned, we students have always been rather accepting — perhaps because the so-called Big Bad Incidents pushed us to be so. The occasional slur slips out of mouths during passing period, but on a superficial level, Carlmont students are trying.

But I did a little digging. Digging brought me to files of scanned newspaper pages in the Belmont Historical Society’s digital archive like this one, and in those pages contains what seems to be pieces of the same story, or perhaps a dozen other unrelated stories. In efforts to curb gang activity and presence at Carlmont, our school hired an actual therapist. Legislation pushing a city-wide curfew rolled out.

If it sounds out of character for Belmont, trust me, it’s supposed to. But this was a time when we had a Street Crime Suppression Team.

Ask any Carlmont student, and they might tell you that going to school at Carlmont and sitting in the older classrooms feels like sitting in jail. It seems an insensitive remark — and I’ll be honest, it still is — until you find out our campus was designed by a prison architect. And in 1997, that feeling would have been amplified by what this newspaper calls “high visibility of police.”

At the moment, there’s just a single cop car on campus some days. So I guess that’s a sign of improvement.

Or maybe it’s a sign that we still have work to do.

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