Two teens arrested in Santa Rosa swastika spree

Santa Rosa High School is known for its panoply of cultures and native languages.

"We pride ourselves on our diversity here," said Pat Sartain, a school official whose daughter chose to attend Santa Rosa High, rather than her assigned school — like more than half the student body.

So when the school was tagged with swastikas and ominous threats last week, students were shocked.

"All the kids that have stopped by the office say they are upset and disgusted," Sartain said. "On the positive side, there has been a lot of good discussion going on in the classroom. "

Two girls, ages 14 and 15, have been arrested for defacing the school, city property and nearby Ridgeway Swim Center with swastikas, death threats and other symbols on April 12, apparently after a drinking spree.

Both students at the school, they will not be allowed back on campus anytime soon, according to school principal Bill Waxman.

The perpetrators "in what appears to be a spontaneous act of juvenile stupidity — wrote on the outside walls of several school and city buildings several messages, which included death threats and warnings," according to Sgt. Mark Young of the Santa Rosa Police Department.

The 14-year-old, who turned herself in to police over the weekend, allegedly told officers she didn't understand the meaning of the offensive symbol.

The vandals "may have ignorantly thought they symbolized 'never ending,' rather than a statement of racial hate and terror," Young said.

On the morning of April 12, school officials arrived at the campus at 1235 Mendocino Ave. to find graffiti scrawled on the outer walls. School staff painted over the offending graffiti immediately, Sartain said.

The incident, said Waxman, was an aberration at the campus, which is surrounded by evergreen trees and verdant lawns.

Police agreed.

"Based on what we have, it appears this was an isolated incident," said police Sgt. Jerry Briggs.

The girls reportedly admitted to authorities that they stole two bottles of wine from a market near the school and guzzled them shortly before 11 p.m. on April 11.

Among the messages they scrawled on the walls with borrowed markers were: "If you know what's good for you you'll leave school before 11:20 4/11/00" and "I'll kill you."

Some feared the time may have referred to the shooting spree at Colorado's Columbine High School, which began around 11:20 a.m. on April 20 of last year.

Waxman discouraged that notion in a letter sent to parents last Friday "telling them just what this was and was not," he said. "This was not an act in preparation for the anniversary of Columbine."

Waxman said he was "aware of the history and circumstances" of the 15-year-old girl, but did not know anything about the younger girl.

Police do not believe there were others involved. Normally, Santa Rosa High enjoys an excellent reputation. Of the five schools in the district, Santa Rosa High School sends the most students to four-year colleges and universities, and boasts the highest SAT scores. The student body of 1,625 includes students of many ethnic backgrounds and 20 native languages. Diana Altschuler, director of the Jewish Family and Children's Services Sonoma County branch, said she has never heard of a similar incident in the region.

"It's not terribly common," she said. "We've never received any phone calls, either from people who were victims or people who were concerned."

Briggs said the last "swastika-type incident we had was about a year ago in the Oakmont district. It was the same type of deal — random."

Ironically, Santa Rosa had just kicked off "the hate-free community project," an educational effort spearheaded by Rabbi Jonathan Slater of Conservative Congregation Beth Ami.

The aim of the "mass-education project" is to sensitize people to the harm that can come from biased speech and condoning biased behavior. "My fantasy is to have banners up at the open-air market that say, 'Santa Rosa is a hate-free community,'" Slater said.

Regarding the incident at Santa Rosa High School, he added, "I tend to not read swastikas as anti-Semitism unless there's something else involved.

"There has been specifically anti-Semitic graffiti here at the synagogue, and there has been hate crime directed at gays and lesbians here in the community."

Recently, students were confronted by a message hostile to African-American and Latinos scrawled on a bathroom mirror at another high school.

"That type of thing happens all the time," Slater said.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.