Written by Shawna Chen
On Monday morning at 6:45 a.m., math teacher Rajeev Virmani approached the N building from the Gunn parking lot and noticed lines of spray paint streaking across the wall of the front entrance. As he moved closer, he registered the words, “Thank god Lobos is leaving,” and felt his stomach sink. Over the weekend, derogatory messages had been spray painted on walls, glass and concrete surrounding the N building, RC building, quad, music building and Titan gym. Graffiti that mocked the Gunn football team, targeted specific ethnicities and made references to the class of 2014 was on display across school grounds. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, crap,’” Virmani said. “‘Our school just got vandalized.’”
As students trickled into his zero period class, dialogue arose discussing student reactions and the extent of the vandalism. “No one thought it was funny,” Virmani said. “Everyone’s thought was, ‘Can’t believe someone would do that to our school.’” Emotions ran from disappointment to anger and sadness to distress. “We started informally talking about it and how insensitive, vulgar and intrusive it felt,” Virmani said. “Everyone was kind of shocked and confused.”
The bell rang, and students remained stunned. “Then, one or two of my students said, ‘Let’s go and cover it up,’” Virmani said. “And I said, ‘Okay, let’s go do it.’” With stacks of paper and rolls of blue tape, Virmani’s and math teacher Chris Karas’s students dispersed across campus as if they were on a mission. “It made me feel really proud to be a part of Gunn High School, as a teacher here, because it was all student-driven,” Virmani said.
The movement to conceal the graffiti soon inspired other students to chalk encouraging messages over the paper itself. Along with numerous peers, junior Jessica Luo spent the day writing uplifting memos over the campus graffiti. “When you have a wound, you put a band-aid over it,” Luo explained. “Sometimes, you want to put some sort of cool band-aid over it to show that you’re not ignoring the fact that something happened but instead you’re taking this opportunity to celebrate something else.”
The collective effort to cover up what had been written would later be greatly treasured by students like freshman Bryan Owens, who “didn’t actually see much of the graffiti because people had been kind enough to cover everything up.”
Parts of the graffiti had already been masked by the time English teacher Jordan Huizing arrived on campus, and as Virmani explained the situation, she felt both simultaneously shocked and proud. “[I was] appalled by what had happened to our school because it’s such a violating feeling; we spend so much of our time here that it feels like a second home, and to have somebody do that to our home essentially felt really horrible,” Huizing said. “But also proud of the students who’d already taken action, that they were covering it up with paper because they didn’t want their peers to be hurt, and that they were trying to cover it up with positive messages. It was really amazing to see the strength of our school.”
Throughout Monday, police officers documented scenes as district maintenance responded to the vandalism by painting over the graffiti and spray washing the concrete. “[Repercussions] would certainly include suspension,” Assistant Principal Trinity Klein said. “Students can be found financially responsible for the cost of the cleanup, and the cost will be enough that there will also be legal consequences.”
Administrators have already compiled a list of possible suspects, but the majority of the investigation, which remains confidential, will involve discussion with students who retain any knowledge of the incident. “If students really want to help us figure this out, they will share with somebody on staff anything and everything that they hear and
let us do the investigation of what’s true and what’s not true,” Klein said. “The more information we have, the more likely we will narrow in on the right person.”
The degree of vandalism has incited speculation concerning the perpetrator’s intent. “The only thing that someone who does something like that wants is to have people react to it and freak out about it and have a lot of anxiety over it,” junior Josh Kaplan said. “Maybe [the perpetrator] was really frustrated at Gunn, but if individuals were more calm about it and the school was equally harsh cracking down on it, then it would have the desired effect of not having people feel like they’ll get attention for things like that.”
Though the administration maintains a firm stance on the consequences of such vandalism, Assistant Principal of Guidance Tom Jacoubowsky also hopes to understand the perpetrator’s emotional state. “This person needs help, and I would really want that person beyond being held accountable to get help,” Jacoubowsky said.
Regardless of who committed the act, relief will come in the form of discovering the motive behind the crime. “Though the statements were incredibly malicious, I’m hoping it’s born out of immaturity and stupidity as opposed to hate,” Huizing said. “This was a really aggressive action and a really negative action toward a whole lot of people. To act out in that way, there’s either a real anger behind it or a sadness that turned into anger, but there’s no joy behind this.”
The culprit, however, hurt more people than he or she may have accounted for. “People, whether they show it or not, are hurt by the graffiti everywhere, especially with jabs at specific races,” Kaplan said. “Ultimately, [the perpetrator] should think more deeply about the broader implications about their actions and the fact that they’re hurting other people around them, not just the school itself.”
While the perpetrator has yet to be identified, responses to the graffiti have unified the school and given staff and students a renewed sense of community. “That the first place a lot of people went to is to try and take care of each other, that the first instincts of people were to chalk positive messages, cover things up and be really protective of each other, I think really speaks volumes about the community we have,” Huizing said.
The extraordinary circumstance has also reinforced the core values at the heart of Gunn. “A lot of people will say in their minds when they see injustice, ‘That’s wrong, but you know what? I don’t want to get involved,’” Jacoubowsky said. “What I like about what Gunn kids did was that they said, ‘No, we will get involved, and this is wrong,’ [and] I think it shows the great efforts we’ve made that we’ve taught the students not just academics but what’s right and wrong as far as how you live your life.”
Since Monday, the statement “We’re all in this together” has only been reiterated, with senior student body president Justice Tention appearing on Titan Broadcast Network and making the announcement for students and staff to wear Not In Our Schools T-shirts as a symbol of unity. In the end, the vandalism incident will vanish from the intricate identity that is Gunn. “We will move forward by focusing on how amazing our community is in so many other ways,” Virmani said. “It’s good to not focus on what was said; the graffiti was done by a select few. Now, we’re going to come together and show who we really are.”