VUSD to remove ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs from El Diamante fence

Visalia Unified decides to remove block-long monument to Black Lives Matter movement after two verbal altercations between students who put up signs and adults taking them down

VISALIA – The block-long Black Lives Matter poster board at El Diamante High School’s western fence will be taken down for good.

Visalia Unified School District announced on Monday that it will remove all signs along the fence at the corner of Akers Street and Wagner Avenue “due to concerns for the safety and well-being of our students,” a district press release stated. The district said the signs would be taken down by July 3 and that no new signs, posters, or personal messages will be allowed on any district office, school building, fence or other district property without approval from the district or on-campus personnel.

“The District believes that an exchange of ideas is an essential part of education and respects students’ rights to express ideas and opinions and is committed to working with and continuing dialogue with our students,” Superintendent Tamara Ravalin said in the released statement. “The District has removed signs that displayed obscenities, profanity, threats, or vulgarity.”

The district made the decision after two incidents involving students who confronted people while they were tearing down the signs referencing “Black Lives Matter” and the recent nationwide protests about racism and social injustice in our society and captured the verbal altercations on video. On Thursday night, June 24, five middle-aged and elderly women were recorded carrying signs they had taken down from the fence.

Joseangel Pena-Gutierrez, a recent El Diamante graduate, recorded the incident on his phone capturing the women walking with the torn-down signs to a truck and three SUVs. In the video, which was posted on Twitter, Pena-Gutierrez asks the women why they need to take the signs, to which they replied “We’re old and cranky.”

“Old and cranky and racist too, or what?” Pena-Gutierrez replied.

“Hardly racist,” Maier replies as she walks away.

“Hardly racist, so just a little bit, just enough for it to be okay,” Pena-Gutierrez retorted.

He repeatedly asks why they are taking the signs and urges them repeatedly to “Leave the signs!”

A second video shows a large, black garbage bag in the back of the truck, which another person in the video points out is filled with the discarded signs. One of the women, identified as Anna Maier of Visalia, brandished scissors when those recording her got close as she walked to her vehicle and told them to “get out of here.” This set off a second verbal confrontation between the women and Pena-Gutierrez and his sister.

Another woman in the video was identified as Patty Goodin, who was incorrectly identified as a Visalia Unified employees but is actually a part-time employee for the Tulare County Office of Education (TCOE). Her LinkedIn account listed her as a TCOE employee of 11 years. It said she supervised interns and teacher candidates for the New Teacher & Leadership Development program, all of which TCOE confirmed but could not provide any additional details about Goodin or her employment. Her LinkedIn profile has since been deleted.

Black Lives Matter supporters showed up on Saturday, June 26 to replace the signs along the high school boundary. Then, on Saturday, June 27, a man came by and tore down the signs. The middle-aged man identified himself as a neighbor who was tired of seeing the signs. A passing car honked in support and the man raised his fist in agreement. Some signs were torn and ripped down shortly after the block-long messages first went up in May.

“To be clear, the District did not authorize anyone to take down these signs, was not aware that this incident would take place … The acts that took place last night do not reflect the District’s goals or values,” Ravalin stated.

What started as student-initiated and student-led expression has now led to multiple disruptive incidents causing concern regarding student safety and potential damage to the District’s property. Students originally posted signs in solidarity as a visual demonstration in support of the nationwide protests about racism and social injustice in our society.

VUSD is instead offering students a chance to continue having the conversation about issues of injustice, bias and racism by transitioning to a forum. Yesterday, June 30, the district held a student forum to provide a space where student input and opinions related to the current nationwide and local conversations about racism and social injustice can be shared and recommendations can be created. The in-person meeting was organized by Brandon Gridiron, VUSD Administrator of Equity and Student Services, with student leaders of the protests. The forum is not open to the public and has been limited in size to allow the highest number of students to engage while safely maintaining social distance.

VUSD is also exploring ways for students to be able to directly communicate with District and local civic leaders.

“The District believes that an exchange of ideas is an essential part of education and respects students’ rights to express ideas and opinions and is committed to working with and continuing dialogue with our students,” the district stated.

Gridiron’s position was created last year to meet the academic, social-emotional, and behavioral needs of all students through training, providing resources, and developing effective, efficient, and equitable support programs. The Equity and Student Services Department works to ensure that all decisions related to students are viewed through the lens of equity. The department will play a key role in developing an Equity Action Plan for the 2020-2021 school year to address cultural proficiency and implicit bias training for managers. A large portion of this training has already been held this past school year.

VUSD said it has made several efforts over the past couple of years to “cultivate an inclusive, positive, and safe culture and climate on our campuses.” Over the past two years, VUSD has received feedback and recommendations from community task force meetings with a cross-representation of people (students, staff, and community members) with different opinions, values, and beliefs to find common ground on controversial school and student-related issues.

VUSD staff have received training on restorative practices, social-emotional learning, and responding to investigations of student incidents tied to equity. The district is exploring new supplemental curriculum to specifically address school climate and controversial issues with students, including issues of identity, diversity, justice, and action.

“The District holds high expectations for our community to work together to create conditions under which each school, staff member, and student can be proud to be associated with Visalia Unified,” Ravalin said. “Last night’s unauthorized and unaffiliated act should not be allowed to diminish the great work we as a community are doing to learn, grow, care for, and be kind to one another.”

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