Petaluma High School and Petaluma City Schools officials don't believe an ugly incident of racial taunting at a high school basketball game is symptomatic of a deeper underlying problem, but are concerned that the incident occurred at all.

"I don't think it is a pervasive attitude in our school," said Petaluma High School principal David Stirrat. "Most of the students I spoke to are concerned that it happened and how it reflects on the school. They take a lot of pride in their school."

But it did happen, and Stirrat said the school must address it. "If we don't face it. If we don't stand up to it, it will always be there," he said.

The incident occurred on Feb. 1 during the varsity basketball game at Petaluma against a team from Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa that includes a number of Hispanic players. During the game, some students in the Petaluma rooting section several times chanted "USA! USA, USA," clearly intended to, as Stirrat put it, "make fun of others and to exclude, rather than being inclusive."

In addition, one Petaluma student held up a sign reading "Dirty Sanchez" an obscene slang expression obviously directed toward Elsie Allen's star player, Angel Sanchez. On a few occasions, some members of the Petaluma rooting section chanted "Dirty Sanchez" as the Elsie Allen player went to the free-throw line.

"I don't believe racism is a pervasive problem in the schools, but it is a problem," said Troy Sanderson, president of the Petaluma City Schools District. "Petaluma High School has tried to turn it into a learning opportunity to make kids understand whey it is a problem. The kids need to understand why it is not appropriate and we're going to help them get there."

Following the incident, Stirrat sent an e-mail to Petaluma High School parents, explaining the what happened, expressing concern and outlining steps the school would take to address the problem.

Last week, in individual classrooms, teachers led all students in a schoolwide discussion of the taunting and the larger issue of racism and discrimination in society in general.

"It was an interesting conversation to have," the principal said. "These are powerful issues that are facing the state and the country. They are powerful issues that we can't sweep under the rug.

"I was proud of the way the students reacted and proud of the staff and teachers and their work in leading the discussion."

Many Petaluma High School students wrote letters of apology to the Elsie Allen student body, and Stirrat is planning to lead a contingent of teachers and students to the Santa Rosa school to deliver the letters. He said the group plans to meet with the Elsie Allen basketball players to personally apologize for the incident.

"Though only a small portion of the student body was in attendance, it is important to realize that we are all part of our school community," Stirrat wrote in his letter to the parents. "If there is ugly behavior or unprincipled decisions made, we all share a responsibility.

"There have been many things that students and staff have accomplished over the years that bring us great pride and an excellent reputation; we all must work together to ensure that Petaluma High is synonymous with those attributes."

Elsie Allen principal Mary Gail Stablein said the incident was "shocking and very disappointing." She said the Elsie Allen players at first didn't understand what was being yelled. "It was first, &‘What are they chanting?' and then &‘Why are they chanting at us?' I am very proud of my team that they didn't react. These are good kids."

Stablein noted that it was the Elsie Allen basketball players who initiated a fund-raising drive for two Elsie Allen cheerleaders who were severely injured in a traffic accident in Mexico just before Christmas. The drive started by the players eventually led to a communitywide effort to support the girls and their family.

"The basketball team took the lead right from the get-go," she said.

Stablein said she was pleased with the response by the Petaluma High School administration, noting that she has been working with Stirrat to bring the Petaluma contingent onto the Elsie Allen campus to meet with the basketball players and other students.

"We are educators. We need to help educate," she said.

Stablein said the taunts aimed at an individual player may go beyond the local level. "It is a CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) violation to make remarks directed toward a particular player," she explained.

Stirrat, who was in attendance at the game, said Petaluma officials didn't react to the chants because they didn't realize at the time what they really meant.

"It is subjective what patriotism is," he said. "It takes a bit of time to make that mental leap (to what the USA chant meant and to whom it was directed)."

"Personally, I regret not stopping the chanting. In my own retrospection, I should have guided students that evening," he wrote in his e-mail to the parents.

"I hope that basketball coaches, school officials and members of the officials association can sit down and discuss ways we can support one another when these kinds of things happen."