Several young aspiring engineers were told to “go back to Mexico” after they won a robotics competition in Indianapolis several weeks ago.
The Pleasant Run Elementary team, the Panther Bots, won a robotics challenge at Plainfield High School, earning them a spot at the Vex IQ State Championship.
The team, which is made up of 9- and 10-year-olds, two of which are African-American and three who are Latino, were shocked when their angry competitors hurled racial insults at them.
“Go back to Mexico” shouted two of the kids.
These types of racist attacks were made by parents as well. During the competition, at least two parents insulted the children based on the color of their skin.
“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,’ ” said Diocelina Herrera, the mother of PantherBot Angel Herrera-Sanchez.
The winning team happens to come from the east side of the city and features mostly poor kids from a Title I school.
“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,” she said.
A district spokeswoman for the school board issued a statement condemning the racist comments that the students received.
“We don’t condone that behavior; we don’t tolerate it in our schools,” said Sabrina Kapp, director of communications for Plainfield Community School Corp. “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, Superintendent Scott Olinger of Plainfield Community Schools released his own statement.
“The Plainfield Community School Corp. 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 Feb. 2, 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 winning team said they will not let the comments affect them and they plan to try and win the entire championship.
“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,” said team leader Elijah Goodwin, 10. “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,” he said. “And we do have a pretty good team.”
Hopper credited her students for maintaining their professionalism even when it is challenging.
“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,” she said. “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.’”
“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.”
A GoFundMe page was created for the competition. To date, it has raised $12,265, $4,265 more than their $8,000 goal.
“We are truly overwhelmed with all of the support we have received,” Hopper wrote on the page. “Any additional funds will be used to help with our robotics program next year.”