A gay, 18-year-old man and his family contend the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office is downplaying what they call a hate crime committed in Sonoma Valley.
As sheriff's deputies rolled up to an altercation at El Verano Elementary School shortly before 11 p.m. Friday, several people fled. Among the handful who stayed, some were in tears and bore signs of having been in a fight.
The deputies found that the teens seemed to have been drinking and apparently were set upon by gang members known to hang out in that area.
One of the beaten teens and his mother say the community needs to know that what happened at the school was far more serious and disturbing.
The family says the core of the violence was a hate crime against the male high school senior, who said he was beaten and robbed by strangers who called him "faggot," "gay boy" and other slurs.
"They obviously attacked me because I'm gay," said the young man, who asked not be to identified because he fears retaliation.
Bret Sackett, the Sonoma County sheriff's lieutenant who acts as Sonoma's police chief, said the initial impression of the investigation is that Kristin Land's son and his friends were assaulted by gang members.
"It just didn't appear to be motivated by his sexual orientation, so it didn't have the appearance of a hate crime," he said.
He said he arrived alone at the school to meet his friends and he was taunted by seven people he didn't know.
He said the strangers hit and kicked him, and took his wallet and iPhone. He said the five friends he'd come to meet saw he was being beaten and three ran to his aid as the others went for help.
When deputies arrived at the school, only the teen's friends were still there. The teen left to seek help at a nearby home, and the suspected gang members had run off.
The teen was bruised and had minor injuries to his face and head when he returned to the scene with his mother.
"I told the cops, 'They beat me because I'm gay,' " he said. "The cops refused to say it was a hate crime because I wasn't the only one who was beaten up."
His mother said the officers appeared to regard the incident as a scuffle among teens.
She said, "I turned and said, 'I want to report a hate crime.'"
Monday evening, she told the City Council that authorities are passing off a serious crime as a teen fight.
"We take hate crimes very seriously," said Sackett, who met with Land's family at their home Wednesday.
However, he said, the deputies who responded and spoke to Land's son's friends heard conflicting accounts of what started the violence, and heard no mention of anti-gay slurs until Land arrived.
Land said Wednesday that she and her son and the rest of her family had a mostly congenial conversation with Sackett.
"I challenged him on (the authorities) doing their job and he challenged me on doing my job."