ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — The NAACP's St. Petersburg Branch held a news conference Tuesday in front of a Tampa Bay area school that was recently targeted with racist and threatening graffiti.
Branch President Esther Matthews, along with local leaders, area pastors and a member of Democratic State Sen. Darryl Rouson's team spoke out against and denounced the acts of racism.
"When we hear that the dean of students calls Black students 'hoodlums' and then retracts it by saying his words were a bad choice," Matthews said. "When a student asks to go to the bathroom and one of her classmates calls out to the teacher and says 'Hey, teacher. Slave is leaving.'"
These are just some of the examples the NAACP branch says students at St. Petersburg Catholic High School are facing.
In mid-January, the campus also learned somebody had written a message on a bathroom wall. The message included profane and racist language. It threatened to kill Black people and included a racial slur.
"When these things happen here it says that we have students in an environment that has allowed a culture of racial hatred to fester unchecked," Matthews added.
That's why they're calling for the person behind the "hate vandalism" to be held accountable, more cultural dialogue between students and in classrooms, the creation of a task force on race, cultural sensitivity training and the removal of the current dean.
"We want what we call restorative justice," Matthews said.
It's a sentiment Pinellas County Democratic Black Caucus President and Commissioner René Flowers echoed.
"We will no longer stand idly by and allow our children to be considered second-class citizens," she said, also calling for the dean's removal.
"No one should be in position of authority when you do not have respect for all of the students that you have sovereign over," Flowers added.
Principal Ross Bubolz, who in a letter to families condemned the racism as "deeply concerning and reprehensible," also spoke during the news conference.
"We remain open to continuing dialogue with our community partners, like the NAACP, sharing ideas on how to best support our students of color consistent with our catholic faith and social teachings," he said.
Bubolz said he contacted the Diocese of St. Petersburg and St. Pete Police Department to investigate the graffiti, ultimately determining there was not "a specific, credible threat" to students.
At the time, the principal urged parents to have conversations with their students about the matter.
"Whether I, you know, missed something or whether I wasn't as attentive as I need to be — you know, that's why we wanna further this conversation and go forward and try to be more understanding and better listeners to our students," Bubolz said Tuesday. "And better understand their needs and help them feel, you know, supported and welcomed."
Following the incident, Superintendent Christopher Pastura said an online anonymous reporting system, which had already been in the works, was being launched.
Although students have been spoken to, the person behind the bathroom message had not been identified, as of last week.
"Ignoring or quieting racism is not a solution. It is a match that allows the flame to grow. Our hope is that this spotlight will begin the process of creating a more inclusive environment for all students," Matthews said Tuesday.
Bubolz also released a video message to families on Tuesday. In it, he said an in-service training was held Monday for faculty and school administrators. It was led by members of the Diocese of St. Petersburg’s Racial Harmony Committee.
He said students were asked to discuss racism during listening sessions that happened Tuesday in their homeroom periods. And, he confirmed he met Tuesday morning with the NAACP.
In his message, Bubolz referenced a 2020 statement from Pope Francis.
“We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life," Pope Francis wrote at the time.
You can watch Bubolz's video below.