Racial, homophobic slurs spray-painted at San Dieguito Academy High School

Activist Yusef Miller
Activist Yusef Miller speaks at San Dieguito Academy High School in Encinitas on Monday as he and others denounced the spray painting of racial and homophobic slurs at the high school.

(Hayne Palmour IV)

The incident was reported to the Sheriff’s Department


Authorities are investigating after someone spray-painted racial and homophobic slurs at San Dieguito Academy High School in Encinitas on New Year’s Day, an incident that drew demands to root out discrimination in the school, district and city.

It marked at least the third incident of hate graffiti at a San Dieguito Union High School District campus this school year.

During a news conference that turned into a rally at San Dieguito Academy on Monday, about 150 people — students, parents and other community members — condemned the latest incident and demanded change.

They held signs that read: “Stop the hate” and “All students deserve to feel safe.”

Several speakers criticized the school district, which held a separate news conference around the same time Monday, saying the district has not listened to demands from students and others and has failed to take steps to prevent acts of hate.

Speakers also said the latest incident was a product of a problematic culture.

“We are not shocked or surprised one bit,” Robin Sales, a member of Showing Up for Racial Justice North County San Diego, said of the latest incident.

District officials said whoever painted the slurs will face consequences.

“We completely condemn these actions,” Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward said in a news conference Monday. “We understand that San Dieguito Union High School District is not perfect. We know that we have issues around racism, ‘-isms,’ around religious issues as well. We are quite aware of that. Because of that awareness, we have put in place different measures to help us become our next best self.”

According to surveillance video, the incident happened just before 4 a.m. Saturday when someone wearing a beanie, hoodie and mask walked onto campus and, with a can of spray paint in hand, painted the slurs on the outside of a building, said James-Ward.

It is difficult to see the person’s face in the footage because of the beanie and mask, she said, but officials believe it is a young person based on the person’s “movement and motion.” James-Ward said the district plans to buy more and better-quality security cameras that will help the district identify any future culprits.

The district reported the incident to the county Sheriff’s Department, which launched a hate-crime investigation. Lt. Amber Baggs, a department spokesperson, said no suspects had been identified as of Monday.

“This is completely unacceptable,” Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear said during Monday’s rally at San Dieguito Academy. “There is no place in this city for that kind of hate.”

Cheryl James-Ward is San Dieguito Union High School District superintendent.

James-Ward said district employees painted over the graffiti by 1 p.m. Saturday. But not before someone took photos of the slurs.

Community activist Tasha Williamson shared two photos of the slurs on social media Saturday night, casting a spotlight on the incident.

“San Diego County has not changed! Our kids are going back to school in Encinitas where racial and LGBTQ hate trauma exist,” she wrote on Twitter. “We continue to be subjected to racism and LGBTQ hate generation after generation.”

San Dieguito Union High School District, which is located in the wealthy suburbs of coastal North County, serves 13,000 students in middle and high school. A majority of the students are White, but the district has become increasingly diverse in recent years. In 2014, 33 percent of students were people of color. Last year, 42 percent were people of color.

Currently about 58 percent of the district’s students are White, 17 percent are Asian, 16 percent are Latino, 7 percent are multiracial and less than 1 percent are Black.

Since Fall 2020, some San Dieguito students have requested that the district do more to embrace diversity. Among the suggestions are to include at least one book in every English class authored by a person of color and about the experience of people of color, add texts about race, systemic racism and White supremacy, and provide more mental health services for students.

James-Ward, who has been superintendent since Nov. 1, said the district has been working to address racism and cultivate an inclusive environment.

She pointed to several district initiatives, including ethnic-based student clubs and diversity and equity efforts within schools’ student-body groups, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion training for employees and a new district position that will investigate complaints involving racism.

“We know there’s a problem, but we are working to address it,” James-Ward told the Union-Tribune in an interview Sunday night. “We know we won’t change overnight, but we are on the road and will continue on this road.”

Last month, there was an incident at Torrey Pines High School, which is in the same district as San Dieguito Academy, when swastikas were found painted in a boys’ restroom. James-Ward said a student was responsible but did not disclose what consequences, if any, that student faced.

For San Dieguito Academy, the latest incident marked the second time a racial slur was painted on campus property. In November, someone graffitied the n-word at the school. That person has not been identified, but James-Ward has said school officials do not believe it was a student.

“The writing is on the wall,” Jill Lax, a retired San Dieguito Academy teacher, said Monday. “This is who we have been for decades. Ask any alumni of color why they don’t want to come back to teach.”

Among the people who attended Monday’s rally was Jason Stewart, head coach of the boys’ basketball team. He said he believes he and an assistant coach are the only two Black employees at the school.

“I think we’ve got to be intentional about hiring,” Stewart said in an interview, adding that it is important to normalize Black and brown people in “positions of influence,” particularly in schools.

While the graffiti was no longer visible Monday, the pain and frustration lingered.

“One cannot cover up the pain these students will endure for a lifetime,” said Rob Jenkins, vice president of North San Diego County NAACP.