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Kids on winning robotics team told, 'Go back to Mexico'

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3/19/2017 Suzette Hackney
The PantherBots of Pleasant Run Elementary School in Indianapolis -- Elijah Goodwin, 10; Angel Herrera-Sanchez, 9; Jose Verastegui, 10; Manuel Mendez, 9; and Devilyn Bolyard, 9 -- are heading to the robotics Vex IQ World Championship from April 23 to 25, 2017, in Louisville. © Courtesy of Pleasant Run Elementary School The PantherBots of Pleasant Run Elementary School in Indianapolis -- Elijah Goodwin, 10; Angel Herrera-Sanchez, 9; Jose Verastegui, 10; Manuel Mendez, 9; and Devilyn Bolyard, 9 -- are heading to the robotics Vex IQ World Championship from April 23 to 25, 2017, in Louisville.

INDIANAPOLIS — The day should have been one of glory and celebration for five fourth-graders.

The Pleasant Run Elementary students had just won a robotics challenge at Plainfield High School, and the students — new to bot competition this year — were one step closer to the Vex IQ State Championship.

The team is made up of 9- and 10-year-olds. Two are African American and three are Latino.

As the group, called the Pleasant Run PantherBots, and their parents left the challenge last month in Plainfield, Ind., competing students from other Indianapolis-area schools and their parents were waiting for them in the parking lot.

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“Go back to Mexico!” two or three kids screamed at their brown-skin peers and their parents, according to some who were there.

This verbal attack had spilled over from the gymnasium. While the children were competing, one or two parents disparaged the Pleasant Run kids with racist comments — and loud enough for the Pleasant Run families to hear.

“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.

These are minority students from the east side of the city, 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.

Nearly 35 schools competed in the Feb. 2 robotics challenge. Plainfield High School was the host, but the participating elementary school teams came from more than 20 communities in and around Indianapolis.

Hopper said her team and their parents were unable to identify the competing students and the parent who made the comments.

Plainfield officials condemned the hurtful comments. A district spokeswoman did not know about the incident until she was contacted but said a letter would be sent to every participating school to reiterate district policies.

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“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 a 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."

Three weeks after the incident, the PantherBots 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 there with students from all over the world.

And they say they’ll walk in with confidence.

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“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 said she and her co-coach, after learning of the incident in Plainfield, gathered the team to see how they were handling it.

“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.’ ”

Just a few months ago, the PantherBots 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.”

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Now they'll be traveling 125 miles south to a world championship April 23 to 25 that is aimed at middle school students. Their GoFundMe page already has raised $4,000 more than their $8,000 goal to get there and has stopped accepting donations.

"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." 

Follow Suzette Hackney on Twitter: @suzyscribe

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