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Threats, slurs against 10-year-old illustrate racism in SF schools, family says

A family of three embraces lovingly, with the mother and father tenderly leaning their heads against their child's.
Luke Simmons with his parents, Helen and Melvin Simmons, in front of the family’s restaurant in the Richmond district. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Ten-year-old Luke Simmons was in the schoolyard at San Francisco's Lakeshore Elementary School on April 4 when a classmate approached and allegedly called him a racial slur. Simmons punched the boy in the mouth, and he walked off. What allegedly happened next is documented in a police report filed by Luke’s mother, Helen Simmons: The classmate's father arrived at campus a few hours later, and the classmate pointed out Luke. 

In front of the school principal, the parent approached Luke in the schoolyard, threatening him with strong language and mentioning knives in a way that he understood to be a threat of violence, Luke's father, Melvin Simmons, told The Standard.

The confrontation was one of several incidents detailed by the Rev. Amos Brown, president of the NAACP San Francisco chapter, in a meeting Sunday at San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church, where community members addressed what they called an "epidemic of racist slurs" against Black students in the city's public schools.

A young person in a pink hoodie and orange beanie, with a reflective expression, mirrored in the glass next to a distracted woman.
Luke Simmons, 10, sits in his family’s restaurant, Tastebuds, in the Richmond District in San Francisco on Monday. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

The event at Third Baptist Church came after Brown said he had met Friday with Matt Wayne, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, about incidents that allegedly spanned the city’s schools, from elementary to high school.

At Sunday’s meeting, parents recounted their children being bullied, discriminated against or made to feel unsafe at city schools due to their race. Speakers called for the firing of principals, as well as the district superintendent and school board members.

Virginia Marshall of the San Francisco NAACP's education committee urged community members to pack an upcoming May 14 school board meeting to demand accountability over the mistreatment of Black students. Some NAACP members expressed interest in temporarily boycotting schools or setting up so-called Freedom Schools taught by Black community members to provide a safer, more supportive learning environment for children.

An elder man is speaking at a microphone, pointing forward, wearing glasses, a suit, and a tie. He appears engaged in his topic.
Reverend Amos Brown speaks at the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco in 2023. At a recent meeting at the church, community members addressed what they called an "epidemic of racist slurs" against Black students in the city's public schools. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

The Standard spoke to the Simmons family to learn more details about the incident earlier this month. 

On that day, Luke had retreated to a scheduled two-hour after-school program, where he heard other students repeat the parent’s threats against him. At that time, the Simmonses said Principal Matthew Hartford called to tell them about the incident but seemed to dismiss the gravity of the situation.

The next morning, the parent returned to campus, confronting Luke again through a gate and allegedly asking him, "Do you know what time it is?" Melvin Simmons said. Luke ran for safety to a school office, but the father followed him into the office before Luke sought refuge in a nearby kindergarten classroom. Hours later, with Luke and his classmates on a pre-planned field trip, Hartford reached out to the Simmonses to tell them of the second incident. 

Helen Simmons said she wrote a letter and filed an in-person complaint with the school district's Office of Equity. Staff members there said they would investigate after spring break ended, and filed a police report at the department's Taraval station. 

A family of three, with the parents flanking a teenager, stands together in front of a mural.
Luke Simmons, center, is supported by his parents, Helen and Melvin Simmons. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard
A hand with a "Family" tattoo resting on another hand atop a wooden surface.
Melvin Simmons, with a tattoo of the word "Family" on his right hand, holds his son Luke’s hand inside the family’s restaurant in the Richmond District in San Francisco on Monday. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

In a statement Monday, San Francisco police confirmed a report had been filed regarding incidents during school hours at the Middlefield Drive campus, saying: “It was reported that a father of another fellow student approached the reportee's son and said some words. The school has been made aware of the incidents and is taking measures to handle the situation."

A police spokesperson later said, “At this time, there is no evidence that a crime has occurred,” before declining to address the district’s actions.

The family said Luke has not returned to campus since the incidents. Melvin Simmons added that his son has had bad dreams, outbursts and hallucinations involving the father's face.

"He's not very happy. He's upset still," Simmons said, adding that Luke is a sweet child and multisport athlete. "He wants to be with his friends at school, but he doesn't feel safe there."

Faculty members told the Simmonses that the student who used the slur against Luke has previously made multiple racist remarks, apparently without being disciplined, Simmons said. The family alleges racial inequity and insufficient disciplinary actions under Hartford's leadership.

The Simmons family owns a San Francisco construction company called 1Original Construction and a soul food-inspired breakfast-and-lunch restaurant in the Inner Richmond called Tastebuds. 

A flagpole with US & California flags flies before "Lakeshore School" with glass doors and a ramp.
According to Helen Simmons, a Lakeshore Elementary School classmate approached her son, Luke, and called him a racial slur. | Source: Courtesy Google Street View

"We're the type of people that look out for people all the time,” Melvin Simmons said. “We've been here in San Francisco for our whole lives, and we know that for sure we don't deserve this type of treatment at all.”

In comments Monday to The Standard, the Third Baptist Church's Brown pointed to other incidents, including a federal lawsuit filed last year by parents of an African American first-grader who alleged school officials failed to take reasonable action against a bully, as well as protests over the reassigning of an elementary school principal who used a racist epithet while admonishing students who used the word in a fight in 2022.

"There are other parents who were not at the meeting, but whose children have been harassed, the N-word has been used," Brown said. 

"Black children do not feel included in many of these schools. You have to have an intentional plan and effort to build community, to assist these young people in feeling a part of the school body."

Brown said he met several times with San Francisco schools Superintendent Dr. Matt Wayne to address the incidents, urging him to "say in no instance will we tolerate, in this school district, racialized abusive language at all."

A young person wearing a pink jacket and an orange beanie stands in front of a grey wall, looking to the side.
Luke Simmons, 10, "wants to be with his friends at school, but he doesn't feel safe there," according to his father. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

"Racism and bigotry have no place in our community and will not be tolerated," SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick told The Standard in an email. "We take any report of racism very seriously. SFUSD actively works to implement anti-racist practices across our schools and in our community."

Dudnick said the district champions diversity and social justice as core values and "will always celebrate our differences, which unite us and make us the strong community that we are." 

In response to a follow-up question about the Lakeshore Elementary incident, Dudnick said that the “SFUSD cannot speak to a specific instance due to our obligation to protect student privacy. Lakeshore and all SFUSD schools care about the safety of our students, and take steps to immediately investigate and respond when a concern is reported.”

According to the district's student and family handbook, SFUSD's formal anti-slur policy says students "should treat all persons equally and respectfully and refrain from the willful or negligent use of slurs against any person on the basis of race, color, creed, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.”

Of the 50,000 students across 132 schools in the district, about 6% are African American

George Kelly can be reached at