Students, parents, staff come together to make VUSD more inclusive for all

Inclusivity Task Force makes recommendations to prevent discrimination of students based on race, culture, sexual identity or freedom of expression

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – Nearly two years ago, a student at Redwood High School wore a sweatshirt bearing the Confederate flag that reignited claims that racism and bigotry are embedded into the culture of the Visalia Unified School District.

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. In addition to the sweatshirt toting 15-year-old, many more Visalia Unified students also feared for their safety, as evidenced by comments to the board and a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of a handful of black students.

Instead of simply changing the dress code to ban hate speech or symbols, which may have left the school district open to First Amendment-based lawsuits, then Superintendent Todd Oto decided to form three committees to handle controversial issues such as the dress code. Known as Inclusivity Task Forces, each of the three committees reflected a different group: Students, staff and community.

The committees were modeled after a similar student group was established at San Luis Coastal Unified School District in 2017, making it and VUSD the only two unified school districts attempting to gather a diverse group of students work through differences on campus. The committees began meeting independently of each other last fall and worked to construct recommendations to the board for dealing with issues of race, culture and expression.

On May 20, a handful of representatives from each committee came together as a joint task force to establish a single list of dress code recommendations to the school board. Current Superintendent Tamara Ravalin presented their recommendations to the board in a report during the June 11 school board meeting.

As part of the report, the task force surveyed over 1,500 students in elementary, middle, and high school grades and 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%).

“We don’t want any student to be treated differently or marginalized,” Ravalin said.

Coming Together
The recommendations included five key findings 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.

To improve communication, the joint task force recommended making policies and expectations clear to students, parents and staff; be consistent with follow-up to students and parents when incidents occur; and engaging in better quality outreach to parents. Parents on both sides of the confederate flag debate maintained they were not properly informed of the situation and there was little follow up by site administrators.

To increase multicultural activities, recommendations included more inclusive curriculum for all grade levels, more events and activities promoting awareness of diverse cultures, a concerted effort to have more student clubs and mentoring, and social skill development. Library materials that are not LGBTQ inclusive is the only area where Visalia Unified scored in the lowest tier on Equity California’s report.

Ravalin said the district would not be acting on the task forces’ recommendation to form an equity group. Described as an advisory committee composed of student, parent, staff and community representatives, Ravalin said the three task forces already serve this purpose. This recommendation also included creating a district director position charged with monitoring district activities, programs and curriculum to address equity, community partnerships, consistent student discipline, parent education, and communication and transparency. Prior to her report at the June 11 meeting, the school board approved the appointment of Brandon Gridiron to serve as administrator of Equity and Student Services. We are going to examine our process.

“One of his charges will be to address this,” Ravalin said.

When it came to the issue of hate speech through speech and symbols, Ravalin was unable to give the board a definitive answer on developing a policy due to concerns voiced by its law firm and the ACLU. At its Nov. 7, 2017 meeting, the school board was scheduled to approve adding the words “other hate groups” to the list of things students cannot reference on their clothing, jewelry or personal items. But 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. Instead, the attorney encouraged VUSD to discuss items of free speech on a case-by-case basis.

“This one is perhaps the most controversial in that we received legal advice that we need to be very careful in how we would go about doing this.”

The final recommendation was to revise the student dress code “to ensure that it is equitable for all students and is free of prejudice related to race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.”

The one piece of final recommendation that could be implemented is to “communicate and enforce the revised policy in a manner that does not cause students to miss class time, embarrass or humiliate students, and is equitable among the sexes and among student groups.”

Ravalin said, “Students were very passionate about this. They want to make sure it is not more harshly [enforced] on young ladies than young men, and it seems that it is, in their view.”

Sued for Discrimination
On Oct. 24, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Northern California filed a discrimination complaint on behalf of the five black students against the Visalia Unified School District. The complaint, filed with the Office for Civil Rights within the Department of Education, charges the district with violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by creating a racially hostile environment. The filing also cites racially disparate detention and suspension rates.

In a released statement, the ACLU claimed that black students at Visalia Unified have been repeatedly harassed and called racial slurs, including the n-word. White students have joked about hanging black students from trees, promoted a “white power” message, called black students “slaves,” and worn confederate symbols to school. The students say their reports of these incidents have been consistently ignored by teachers and administrators.

Spotlighted for Inclusivity
Just prior to the task forces joint meeting, Equality California Institute released its first-ever report analyzing LGBTQ policies at 130 of California’s 343 unified school districts. Visalia Unified was among 22 districts spotlighted in the April 23 report as having “extensive programs and policies to foster a safe and supportive school climate for LGBTQ students, including adopting anti-bullying and suicide prevention policies, cultural competency training programs, affinity groups like GSA clubs, inclusive access to facilities, and more.”

Superintendent Tamara Ravalin said, “We are considered a top tier school district that is moving forward.”

More than 80% of Visalia Unified’s certificated, classified and administrative from Early Childhood/ Pre-K/ to High school have had one or more hours of mandatory cultural competency training. The district’s suicide prevention policy addresses the needs of LGBTQ+ youth, youth bereaved by suicide, youth with disabilities, youth with mental illness, youth with substance use disorders and youth experiencing homelessness or who are in out-of-home settings. Visalia Unified has established a process for changing transgender and gender-nonconforming students’ names on official and unofficial school documents. The only area where the district received low scores was in providing library materials that are LGBTQ inclusive.

“The Equality California Safe and Supportive Schools Survey provided Visalia Unified with the opportunity to undertake a thorough review of our policy and practices related to school safety,” said Visalia Unified School District Superintendent Todd Oto in a released statement by the Equity California Institute. “The results of that survey, communicated through the 2019 Equality California Safe and Supportive Schools Report Card, provide us with affirmation that we have a solid foundation to build upon in ensuring that all of our students have a school environment that is safe and inclusive.”

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