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Monday, April 09, 2007

Commentary: Incident Represents the Latest in a String

To be honest, I do not even know where or when to start with this, but to be very frank, everyone should be very concerned at this point with the Davis Joint Unified School District. Last summer the Davis Human Relations Commission was disbanded for a number of reasons, most of which had to do with the mishandling of a case involving a 16-year-old Davis High School student of Muslim heritage. And I think if you pin down those involved in the situation from the police to the city council, at some point all will admit that they did not handle it as they should have. What should have been a minor incident became a major incident that eventually led to a city manager, police chief, and a city commission all being fired in one sense or another.

What does this have to do with the Davis Joint Unified School District? Bear with me on that for a moment. The Davis Human Relations Commission had the authorization according to the Anti-Discrimination ordinance to "investigate and mediate" any alleged violations of the anti-discrimination ordinance. However since the body was placed on hiatus, the body has largely been a ceremonial body--hosting a few community events, but taking no part in the more formal functions it once served.

Therefore, in each of the incidents that have occurred, there has been no body sanctioned by the city that could act on the behest of aggrieved or allegedly aggrieved parties.

In November, we discovered that a Harper Junior High School student had been harassed by his peers because of his fathers' (plural), sexual orientation. The concerning aspect of this is that the initial response at the administrative level was completely inadequate. The Principal in this case was much too lenient initially which created a safety issue and turned a small incident or string of incidents into a situation where the student would be unable to return to school and the school district is being sued, now not by one student, but by two students. The school board did eventually and fairly quickly step up and make strong changes to the discipline policy, but by that point, the damage was done. Could a body like the HRC have stepped in and prevented this case from going into the legal system? Hard to know, but that was one of the reasons it was established to begin with.

On March 1, 2007, the Davis High School principal suspended the Black Student Union at the Davis High School. A huge rift had developed in the group following the resignation of the popular club adviser Courtenay Tessler. Tessler's resignation was due to internal tensions in the group, mainly with some of the parents. Those tensions blew up in the wake of Tessler's resignation and a subsequent meeting that created a power struggle that devolved into "rude and disrespectful behavior" according to Ginni Davis, the association superintendent of the Davis Joint Unified School District. Climate Coordinator Mel Lewis was temporarily named as adviser following Tessler's resignation, but that moved served to just further fuel the flames, part of which seems to centered over a rift between black immigrants versus US born African Americans.

Aside from the fraternal nature of this incident, there are two key issues. First, that there are around 60 African American students but no African American teachers at the school. Second, and related, the BSU had served as a group vital to the student in terms of support, community, and solidarity, and now that outlet is gone. That vehicle has at least temporarily been disbanded to create a "cooling-off" period, however, this has not prevented the tensions from continuing as the students marched in the streets and have held a serious of meetings to attempt to rectify the situation and force the school district to reconsider their policy.

At around the same time, the school district led strongly by an appointed task force, made the determination to close down the most heavily minority and section 8 school in the district. The closing of Valley Oak Elementary school has been covered extensively here. While in none of these incidents would I suggest that racism played a role in the handling of the situation, I would suggest that the handling of each of these was poor. I would also suggest that in the case of Valley Oak, that the fact that this particular school was slated to be closed may have to do with some political situations. There may have been a thought that it would be easier and less controversial to close Valley Oak as opposed to say North Davis Elementary or Cesar Chavez Elementary.

Regardless of intention, the effect I believe will be to put disadvantaged kids at a greater disadvantage. The sad thing was that this was a successful school. I am of the belief that you do not close down successful schools, you find ways to fund them. Already, I am hearing that the proposed closing is having a huge impact on enrollment and parental activities. Moreover, now the parents at Valley Oak Elementary and deciding how to proceed and one option that they are considering is a charter school--which would be a very risky and difficult venture, at best. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a great option, even the one available, the parcel tax, will be exceedingly difficult to pass.

That leads us to the most recent incident involving a Davis High School student, apparently asked to take down a poster of Malcolm X because it contained the phrase, "by any means necessary." The teacher then explained to the student in front of class why the poster was inappropriate. She mentioned a "terrorist" message--which is ludicrous. The student then was asked to give a speech before an assembly, he sent the organizers two speeches, they picked the one that he gave and was told not to mention the teacher, the teacher left the assembly in tears, and the student was suspended for three days. Now the teacher has informed the family that the student is not wanted back in class.

From what I have seen this situation was completely mishandled. There is no way I can see to justify a three day suspension (which carries with it permanent repercussions to the student's academic future) for an incident like this. There is no way that this situation should have been handled as this one was. This once again seems to be a failure of the administration to properly handle a tough situation.

The school board despite some controversy did the right thing when they "fired" Superintendent David Murphy in early March. However, what appears to be in order is a thorough house cleaning of many of the administrators that were hired under his tenure. Each of these situations except for the Valley Oak one, stem from an initial mishandling of a situation by a site administrator. In some cases an overreaction and in another an underreaction.

The initial mishandling set the tone for future interactions and the sad fact is that somehow the district has been unable to extricate itself from the problem once the initial incident was mishandled. Will that continue in the latest case? Will this end up being another lawsuit and drawn out incident? Too early to tell, but the district needs to take the initiative early on in this case and prevent it from being an ugly legal battle. There should be room from compromise and room to work out an acceptable arrangement, but the trajectory on this latest incident does not appear headed in that situation.

At some point the board needs to step in early and prevent this from becoming a lawsuit and from harming a promising student's academic future. It is very important that they act soon. In the meantime, we have to all ask ourselves why these situations continue to occur in our community. At the recent Caesar Chavez event a couple of city officials asked me point blank why there were so few (no) minorities in attendance? The same was true at the MLK day event. It is a simple answer to unfortunately a very serious question. Meanwhile just last week, the Davis City Council took another step toward re-writing the city's anti-discrimination ordinance. And people wonder why so few minorities attended events that used to be the most diversely attended events in the city.

People will accuse me, as they often do, of exaggerating this stuff even as more and more minorities tell me that they have to move out of Davis for the sake of their children and not wanting them to grow up in an environment of what they perceive to be intolerance but worse than that, indifference by the majority of the people to what is actually going on. I fear that this situation is about to come to a head. I would hope that those leaders in this community would be able to step in and prevent it before it reaches a boiling point.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting