Visalia Unified School District makes effort to be more inclusive

District has formed student, parent and community task forces, established an Equity Department, encouraged black student unions and is working toward making ethnic studies a graduation requirement

VISALIA – More than a year ago, over 1,500 students in elementary, middle, and high school grades were asked if they were treated differently and why.

A majority of students said they were treated differently for their physical appearance (58%), race, ethnicity or skin color (56%). A little less than a third stated they were treated differently for their family’s income level (29%) and less than a quarter reported they were treated differently based on gender identity or expression (24%), sexual orientation (21%), sex (19%) and religion (19%).

The survey led to a joint recommendation from three task forces comprised of students, parents and community members to: Improve communication, increase multicultural activities, revise the student dress code, form an equity group, develop and implement a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech. An update on those efforts was provided to the board at is July 7 meeting.

Equity

Instead of creating an equity group, comprised of students, parents and community members, VUSD created an equity department within the district office. As its first step in creating the department, the board appointed Brandon Gridiron as administrator of equity and student services for the district last summer. Gridiron has since created an Equity Group that is a cross section of classified staff, teachers and managers that will be certified as cultural proficiency trainers to develop district and board policies on student equity and then train site managers on how to implement those policies.

Equity is not the same as equality, Gridiron explained to the school board during his presentation. Equality is providing every student with the same resources and opportunities, while equity is providing each student with the resources they need to have access to the same opportunities. He used the visual of three people of different heights trying to watch a soccer game over a wooden fence. If he gave everyone the same size box to stand on to see over the fence, it might not be large enough for the shortest person to see. An equitable solution would be providing the right sized box for each person or to remove the obstacle, the fence, which would benefit everyone including people of different heights. By changing the wooden fence to a chain link fence, everyone would be able to see the game regardless of their height.

At the district level, Gridiron said VUSD needed to identify demographics struggling with subjects, graduation, suspensions and attendance and then decide what resources to provide those students to help them overcome those obstacles. That includes taking steps to create an understanding of equity and cultural competencies, structures that foster positive relationships about culture, support for historically underserved students and their parents, and using data to define, establish and implement culturally proficient and equitable practices in the district.

Michael DeCampos was on of the students who participated in Gridiron’s presentation to the board. DeCampos, a member of the LGBT community, said “white, racist students” were the problem and a lack of follow up on reported incidents by site administrators helps perpetuate the problem.

“I grew up within a white community who doesn’t admit that privilege is real,” DeCampos said. “The administration is ignoring its students, not its white privileged students, but those who are struggling.”

DeCampos called for the district to establish a district-wide code of conduct for all, race, ethnicity, gender orientation and sexual misconduct, a protocol for walk-in complaints and disciplinary action related to the conduct, including for racial discrimination, bias and sexual assault, and to adopt a district-wide mandatory curriculum for all students on the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Multicultural

The district has accomplished a lot in the area of increasing multicultural activities at schools. Last summer VUSD hired full-time activities directors at each of the four high schools. The directors work with Gridiron to develop a leadership class focused on creating positive school climate and culture. They were also key in helping Gridiron gather middle and high school students interested in becoming leaders on their campuses in regards to more cultural events for black students. A group of these students attended the African American Student Leadership Conference on Feb. 11 in Fresno.

“It gives students a chance to see themselves in careers and opportunities they are interested in,” Gridiron said.

Those groups are now being encouraged to form black student unions at their schools to raise awareness about their culture and issues facing their race. Gridiron said there is also talk of offering ethnic studies courses at the high school, and possibly even making them a graduation requirement. Last month, both the State Senate and Assembly approved Assembly Bill 1460 which would require all California State University campuses to offer an ethnic studies course beginning in the 2021-22 year. The bill, which is awaiting the Governor’s signature, would also require CSUs to make the completion of at least one, three-unit ethnic studies course a graduation requirement for undergraduates.

“I think eventually this will be a graduation requirement for all high schools, but we don’t want to wait around until we have to do this,” Gridiron said. “We want to do this for our students.”

One of the students involved in the conversation is Neftaly Gonzalez. The Redwood High School senior called into the July 7 meeting to call for ethnic studies courses at all VUSD high schools.

“We are forced to learn a history that fails to recognize the contributions of people of color such as African Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans,” Gonzalez said. “Offering courses that include multiple perspectives by authors of color should happen on every campus.”

Communication

In order to increase communication, VUSD held its first public forum in January for parents and community members to help ensure that students feel included, accepted, valued and appreciated. Gridiron said more than 60 people attended the event at the Visalia Senior Center. “Visit with VUSD on Equity” was supposed to happen quarterly but was canceled in the spring due to the spread of the coronavirus. Gridiron’s department also created its own web site with videos explaining how teachers and administrators can be more equitable for students, how parents can obtain student records, and links to the district’s PowerSchool software, where administrators and teachers can file incident reports about student claims of discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment, track the response and see how it was resolved. A version of the portal for parents will launch this fall and Gridiron said the goal is to launch a student portal sometime this school year. Gridiron said the student portal will allow students to remain anonymous, but will ask for specifics such as day of the week, time of day and school campus that the incident happened, as well as what type of incident it was to allow him to analyze data to target resources to help prevent the issue from happening.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us, but it is important and necessary,” Gridiron said. “Communication is the biggest piece.”

Hate speech

The three task forces were originally formed during the 2018-19 school year in response to an incident involving a Redwood High School student wearing a sweatshirt with the Confederate flag. Images of the boy were posted on Snapchat with the hashtag “white power.” As the image began trending locally on other social media platforms, the boy’s mother kept him home from school out of fear for his safety. The school board was prepared to amend its dress code in 2018 by adding the words “other hate groups” to the list of things students cannot reference on their clothing, jewelry or personal items when four high school seniors and an attorney with the ACLU each took the podium to urge the district not to approve the change, saying it did not go far enough to address underlying racial tension on campus.

The district’s law firm convinced the school board to delay their vote again in January because the phrase “other hate groups” was undefined and could be seen as infringing on students’ First Amendment rights. The attorney encouraged VUSD to discuss items of free speech on a case-by-case basis. Instead, the district formed three task forces, one comprised of students, another of parents and third for community members, which came up with recommendations that were adopted by the school board on March 10. The changes appear in the text of Board Policy 5145.2(a) to read: “Students are also prohibited from engaging in any form of speech that substantially disrupts school or school related activities or where it is reasonably foreseeable that the speech will cause a substantial disruption at school or a school related activity. This includes express of hate speech as defined in BP 5145.9.”

“The biggest part of the discussion is ‘Are we going to, as a district, ban specifically the Confederate flag?’” Gridiron said. “We can presume that that symbol may cause a disruption or some type of tension between student groups. Then it is foreseeable for us to ask the student to remove that.”

Dress code

The district also decided to review its dress code to ensure it did not put more restrictions on young women than young men. Gridiron said the discussions between students found that female students were more likely to be removed from class for what they were wearing than male students. For example, female student athletes are not allowed to wear a sports bra on campus but male students were allowed to be shirtless. Even more common, male students were allowed to wear spandex shirts but female students were not allowed to wear spandex pants.

The three task forces finished drafting a new dress code policy and planned to present their recommendation to the board in March when the schools closed and the board and district staff turned their attention to navigating the pandemic.

“This is definitely at the top of our list for the fall,” Gridiron said.

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