*A team of five black and Latino fourth graders in Indianapolis clinched a Robotics challenge, only to be told afterwards to “Go Back to Mexico.”
The team – made up of 9- and 10-year-olds, two African Americans and three who are Latino – had just won the competition last month at Plainfield High School, bringing them one step closer to the Vex IQ State Championship.
As the group — known as the Pleasant Run Panther Bots — left the challenge with their parents, competing students from other Indianapolis-area schools and their parents were waiting for them in the parking lot. “Go back to Mexico!” two or three kids screamed at their brown-skin peers and their parents, according to IndyStar.com’s Suzette Hackney.
One or two parents also barked racist comments at the Pleasant Run kids while they were competing inside the gymnasium.
“They were pointing at us and saying that ‘Oh my God, they are champions of the city all because they are Mexican. They are Mexican and they are ruining our country,’” Diocelina Herrera, the mother of Panther Bot Angel Herrera-Sanchez, heard a woman say.
“For the most part, the robotics world is kind of a white world,” said Lisa Hopper, the team’s coach and a Pleasant Run second-grade teacher. “They’re just not used to seeing a team like our kids. And they see us and they think we’re not going to be competition. Then we’re in first place the whole day and they can’t take it.”
Plainfield officials condemned the hurtful comments. “We don’t condone that behavior; we don’t tolerate it in our schools,” Sabrina Kapp, director of communications for Plainfield Community School Corporation, said. “We talk a lot about community values here. That is simply not something that anybody associated with Plainfield schools would put up with.”
On Wednesday, Scott Olinger, superintendent of Plainfield Community School Corporation, released a statement:
“The Plainfield Community School Corporation does not condone or tolerate language or behaviors that degrade others. Had our organizing team been made aware of the alleged behaviors by unknown adults on February 2nd, we would have taken immediate action.
We were pleased to host such an impressive array of young students, and we were equally proud of the teamwork, camaraderie, knowledge and fun that these children displayed. To learn now that adults may have acted in a way that distracted from the success of the day is disheartening. In the Plainfield schools, such behavior is unacceptable, regardless of whether it comes from adults or students.”
The Pleasant Run students not only brushed off the racist comments, but have actually been “emboldened by the hate,” writes Hackney:
Three weeks after the incident, the Panther Bots won the Create Award — for best robot design and engineering — at the state championships, which qualified them for the Vex IQ World Championship next month in Louisville. They will compete with students from all over the world.
And they’ll walk in with confidence.
“They yelled out rude comments, and I think that they can talk all they want because at the end we’re still going to Worlds,” 10-year-old team leader Elijah Goodwin told me this week. “It’s not going to affect us at all. I’m not surprised because I’m used to this kind of behavior. When you have a really good team, people will treat you this way. And we do have a pretty good team.”
Hopper said she and her co-coach, after learning of the incident in Plainfield, gathered the team to see how they were handling it. They are resilient kids. They’re focused. They refuse to be victims.
“I was afraid they would let it get in their heads and wig them out,” Hopper said. “We sat down and talked to our kids, and obviously we let them share their feelings. They were on top of it already. They said: ‘We know they are mean. We know they were jealous. We’re not going to let it bother us.’ One of our guys said ‘to take stuff like that and let it make you stronger.’”
The Panther Bots, after all, know how to persevere. Just a few months ago, this team knew nothing about robotics. The low-income school was given a grant to develop a robotics program. Fourth grade teachers were asked to identify 10 students who had potential and exhibited leadership qualities. As a tryout, the students were asked to build something with Legos.
Elijah Goodwin, 10; Angel Herrera-Sanchez, 9; Jose Verastegui, 10; Manuel Mendez, 9; and Devilyn Bolyard, 9, were selected.
“I’m just so proud of them,” Hopper said. “The great thing about these five kids is they all ended up having strengths that elevated the team. They are dynamic individuals.”