Valentina Paralitici and Jose Sosa moved to Palm Coast last year to help family through the coronavirus pandemic. They have 5-year-old twins. On Sunday, Paralitici took them to Belle Terre Park, adjacent to Wadsworth Elementary and Frieda Zamba municipal pool.
Soon after the children began playing they ran around one of the gazebos in the small park where their eyes caught sight of fresh, bright-orange graffiti. The color is hard to miss even from a distance. It’s the kind homicide traffic investigators use to mark up pavement at crash scenes. They called their mother’s attention. Someone had drawn a penis on concrete floor at the gazebo’s opening, along with the words “slut,” a related obscenity and what looks like three initials.
“And then she looked up and saw the swastika,” Sosa said of his wife.
On a small rock-climbing wall attached to other climbing and swinging equipment, a white, distinctly angular swastika, suggesting its hand had all the time in the world, had been spray-painted between the rock-shaped knobs meant for the hands and feet of small children. The four capital letters of a blunt, standard profanity were more sloppily sprayed around another rock. A tiny dash of crash-scene orange appears below one of the rocks, like a false start. the vandal(s) had come prepared with alternatives.
Obscenities, bigoted slurs and swastikas have been sprayed from time to time on pavement, on cars or garage doors, and the Confederate flag occasionally makes its appearance at either of the two local high schools. Two years ago it flew at the home of the caretaker on the grounds of Princess Place Preserve. but hate-crime vandalism or hate crimes in general have been rare in Flagler. What was more unusual about the slurs on Sunday were their location: there’d been no such documented incident at a children’s park in recent memory.
What subsequently frustrated Sosa and Paralitici were the responses they got from the Sheriff’s Office, the administrator of a widely read, local school-related Facebook page, and the principal at Wadsworth Elementary, though each in turn reacted with dismay at the find in the park.
Paralitici called law enforcement just before noon and spoke with a deputy after 1 p.m., saying she’d cleaned up as much of the Swastika as she could. The deputy told her he would inform people responsible for the park, who would then clean it up. The brief documentation of the incident the sheriff’s office provided–five lines summarizing the call and contact with Paralitici–makes no mention of an investigation, canvasing of the park or inquiring about any potential surveillance cameras in the area. (The city has installed cameras at numerous city parks.)
The couple tried posting pictures of their find on the Facebook page of Flagler Parent, but its administrator took them down, saying the matter was not school-related and wasn’t in the proper forum. Carmen Sanford, the page’s administrator, said in an interview she was outraged by the graffiti and shared the parents’ dismay at a lack of discussion about it all in general. But she said, accurately, that the incident took place in a city park, not at school, making it a subject for another forum–like a news site. “They have very valid reasons but I simply didn’t want to open that conversation because I knew where it was going to go,” she said, referring to Facebook’s tendency to trigger conflicts and alienate page participants.
Sosa contacted Anna Crawford, the principal at Wadsworth Elementary, where his children attend kindergarten. He let her know what took place. “I am truly sorry that your family experienced this and will follow up with someone to be sure it is cleaned up asap,” Crawford wrote back shortly.
Sosa later wrote: “We are not looking for apologies. We are looking for parents, teachers, schools administrators to do something about it! Dismissing this as kids being kids is the most dangerous thing we can do, and that’s what seems to be happening. My wife and I can’t believe that NO AUTHORITY figure in the area seems alarmed by any of this. Not the police and not the school. It makes matters worst that we are learning these are not isolated incidents either. These acts of hate, in a community with a growing minority population, will inevitably devolve into violence and loss of live if we don’t do something about it.”
Crawford hadn’t actually dismissed the matter as “kids being kids.” She said in a brief interview this evening that there’s no question that the discussion “has got to start with us,” and said she was willing to “facilitate the conversation in any way that I can.” But she was limited by what she could do Sunday. She was at school part of the afternoon and went to the park to see for herself.
“Please know that senseless acts like those you have described are completely unacceptable to me, and that is why I responded to you almost immediately when the email came through earlier today,” Crawford wrote Sosa. “If it were not important to me, I may have waited until tomorrow (Monday) to respond. Instead, I responded multiple times, reached out to the park owners, the City of Palm Coast, to get the graffiti removed (see below), and once I received your information that people were parading near the park and being offensive, I left my office and drove to the back of the school to see how I could help. All of the above was done on a Sunday when schools are closed and administrators are not typically in the building or checking email. However, I want to be as supportive and as helpful as possible to our staff and families.” Crawford explained legal and practical limitations on a Sunday and asked Sosa “that you not assume I have a lack of concern over the events you described today.”
Sosa alluded to the recent spate of children making threats of shooting up schools–and getting arrested for it–which generates recurring calls from school and law enforcement officials to have conversations with children about language and responsibility.
“What we would like is for a conversation to happen between school, police, and how we are going to talk about this at school at the very least just having the school put out any kind of help for minority parents to help them guide their kids through this when they see this kind of symbols,” Sosa, a software engineer who grew up in Puerto Rico, said this evening. (Paralitici is a native of Venezuela.) “It’s not about catching anyone or disciplining anyone. These are kids. It’s just that there seems to be a great problem where different institutions in the county, schools, police, when it happens, they just clean it up and say, this is just kids being kids.” Sosa wants to see these institutions “encourage people to talk about” the issue.
Around 2:15 Sunday afternoon, four or five children were playing in the park, running back and forth by the two spots where the graffiti was still plainly visible. Four teen-agers crossed paths with a reporter as he was walking out of the park after taking pictures of the graffiti. One of them asked if the reporter was with FlaglerLive, another mumbled vulgarities and something about “fake news,” and walked on.
Moments later as the reporter was driving in the parking lot, two of the teens appeared on the sidewalk along the park, brazenly unfurled a full-size Confederate flag, and walked, parade-style, by the car and toward the grounds of Freda Zamba pool. “Shoot this,” they told the reporter as one of the teens held up a phone, taking pictures or video. Asked to come out from behind the flag so they could be photographed, they declined. Told that they might not want to unfurl the flag on the city’s municipal pool property, one of them yelled out something about “heritage.”
It isn’t clear how or why a group of teens would have had a Confederate flag in reserve, ready to be inexplicably unfurled at a moment’s notice in an already twice-defaced city park on a Sunday afternoon.
A spokesperson for Palm Coast government around 4 p.m. today said that the graffiti had been cleaned up at the park, and issued a statement: “It is the top priority of our City Council and City staff to provide an environment that is safe and enjoyable for all of our residents. It is always disheartening any time we see or hear of acts that are destructive to our community. Vandalism is costly to tax payers, causes division within communities, and is not welcome in the City of Palm Coast. We will continue to do our best to stay on top of monitoring and promptly addressing any vandalism when it’s discovered. At the same time we encourage anyone who witnesses such activity to please alert the local Sheriff’s Office and contact our Customer Service Department.”