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By Ed Sibby

Turning a Campus Racial Incident Into a Teachable Moment

On the morning of Aug. 14, as teacher Tiffany Suetos prepared to record background footage for her PE class at school, she was verbally assaulted by a couple from the neighborhood, who demanded she leave the Redhawk Elementary School campus immediately.

Suetos, who is Black, was reduced to tears as the couple refused to accept her explanation that she was indeed a staff member. They even drove to the campus administration building to report her to school authorities. It was only when campus custodian Ruben Castillo confronted them about their profiling behavior and defended Suetos that they relented. Before leaving the school, the couple claimed there had been a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood.

Members of the Equity and Human Rights Committee of her local, Temecula Valley Educators Association (TVEA), reported the incident, and the executive board held an emergency meeting on Sunday to ensure Suetos was supported and safe as they planned a response. TVEA President Jeff Kingsberg spoke with Temecula Valley Unified School District officials Monday morning; they will weigh action after investigating Suetos’ detailed account of the incident. Other educators and allies set in motion plans for a rally and march to show support for their beloved colleague.

At the Aug. 20 rally, Suetos spoke passionately about the event being a “teachable moment” for the community. She shared a letter she had sent to the superintendent, reading it to the crowd gathered in front of the school where the incident took place. “I cannot stop crying because I know this is something I have to accept. I know that nothing will happen after this letter. And if I’m wrong, I thank you.” In a powerful moment, she stopped reading, looked at her audience of over 300, and said, “And so I thank you, all of you, because I wasn’t expecting any of this, and I wasn’t looking for this. … I am humbly appreciative from the bottom of my heart.” While standing before the crowd, Suetos mentioned colleagues and friends who let her know by word and deed that they were behind her as she decided to take the information public.

Craig Hardesty, Perris Elementary Teachers Association president, on hand to support the march, said, “Tiffany spoke with dignity and pride despite a traumatic event. Yes, she had hurt in her heart, but she didn’t let that stop her from sending a message of love, learning and community.”

One of Suetos’ many powerful remarks at the rally was that she didn’t hate the couple who had confronted her. “This was the result of unconscious bias and how it needs to be exposed and dealt with because it affects everyone.” In confronting the problem, the Redhawk community is sending a strong message that racial profiling and discrimination are not acceptable.

An even clearer message was sent afterward. The rally crowd marched around the entire site and intentionally marched past the offending neighbors’ house.

Suetos was upbeat as she interacted with the many young organizers in attendance.

As the crowd thinned, her professional impact and personal popularity were on display. Fellow educators greeted her and assured her that they “had her back.” Always the educator, Tiffany Suetos has courageously taken charge to turn this unjust event into a moment everyone can learn from.

Members: Are you interested in social justice issues in your local chapter and community? CTA has deep historical roots in the movement.

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