Students protest for San Dieguito to address racial inequities, inclusion

Encinitas4 Equality students led an Aug. 14 protest
Encinitas4 Equality students led an Aug. 14 protest on Santa Fe Drive to urge SDUHSD to have a discussion on racial inequities in the district.

On Aug. 14, students and parents protested in front of San Dieguito Academy High School in Encinitas, demanding that the San Dieguito Union High School District listen to the voices of its community members and that racism, diversity and inclusion are made a priority by the school board.

The protest was organized in part by Encinitas4Equality youth group co-leaders Aya Jaffer and Joy Ruppert, sophomores at San Dieguito High School Academy. Over the last month, the E4E group has sent the district a list of proposals to help the district be more inclusive, developed with fellow youth leaders Myla Fleming, SDA class of 2020 and Jordan Rubenstein, Torrey Pines High School class of 2020.

Their first request was that the school board place an agenda item on the upcoming August board meeting to specifically address racial inequities and diversity in the district. Aya and Joy said there a number of students and parents who have powerful stories to share about feeling uncomfortable in their schools.

“We want the board to see that there are students that struggled and are still struggling in their schools,” said Aya. “Some people have asked ‘What racism?’ and they don’t want to see that it’s there. Many students struggled from it.”

The group urged the board to “create a safe, inviting space for our Black families to share their experiences so that we may better learn from them and begin the lifelong allyship journey of support.”

The group was told that the current focus of the San Dieguito Union High School District board was handling COVID-19 and the start of the school year so it would not be placed on the Aug. 27 agenda. In response, the group took the next step and protested in front of the high school on Santa Fe Drive.

Students held signs that read “Stop the hate, educate” and “Recognize racism.” Parents held signs that read “Support change for our children of color.” A table was also set up to register people to vote.

“I’ve always been interested in the civil rights movement and making sure everyone feels accepted and safe,” said Joy.

Joy’s own experiences with racism have driven her desire to ensure that all students feel safe at school. Joy, who is Chinese, said in her first week of high school, students spoke in made-up Mandarin and Japanese to her, bowed to her and made fun of the shape of her eyes. She said other classmates watched and weren’t sure what to do: “We hope to change that environment,” Joy said. “This is not OK.”

In December last year, SDA was vandalized with homophobic language and anti-semitic imagery. While the school responded initially to the incident, Joy and Aya said eventually everyone just moved on.

As part of their group’s demands for systemic changes in response to racism in schools, the group would like to see school policies and procedures that lead to improved academic outcomes for all. The group has asked that the district adopt or update to anti-bias practices with clear and defined repercussions for racial slurs, hate crimes and acts of oppression and to create safe spaces and clear reporting processes for minority students. They said staff should be given de-escalation training for racism and acts of hate within classroom, and bystander training should be provided for all students. Aya and Joy said students need to understand the weight of the slurs they are using and others need to be taught how they can respond when they see something wrong.

This spring, both young women have been inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in this country. “I’ve always had a passion for social justice and fighting racism,” said Aya.

Students protest in front of San Dieguito High School Academy.

As an Arab American, Aya said she has felt a deep-rooted responsibility for helping other minorities. She has heard slurs from classmates and feels that sometimes, due to her race, she has been used as an exhibit or educational tool: “I’m not your ethnic studies course,” she said.

Her experiences are one of the reasons why the group’s demands include that the schools provide ethnic studies courses and school-wide cultural experiences that promote dialogues in the classroom.

Both Aya and Joy were looking for a way to get involved and make change locally and found Encinitas4Equality, the grassroots group organization that was established in May in response to the murder of George Floyd. The long-term vision of E4E is to continue to engage the community to demand equality and ensure social justice for all marginalized groups.

The young women became co-leads of the youth group at E4E, and with parent leader Kristin Fay and E4E co-founder Mali Woods-Drake, students began reaching out to the district with their request to be placed on a board agenda.

In addition to a board discussion, the group has proposed that all educators and staff members of the district participate in continuing education and professional development around racial justice, inclusion and diversity, including the Black, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander and LGBTQUIA experiences. E4E has stated they would provide free workshops and sensitivity-based training on facilitating productive conversations about race, sensitivity around language and culturally responsive teaching.

The group would like to see more representation in books, texts and other learning materials and for the district to make a commitment to allyship—displaying signs and flags that show support for all minority groups within the school, on school campus and on social media sites. The group has also requested the creation of a district “equity team” that features voices from parents and alumni who are interested in making an impact on diversity and inclusion initiatives at SDUHSD.

At San Dieguito this year, Joy and Aya said they hope to start a multicultural club on campus, hosting cultural events and bringing in guest speakers. Joy and Aya said that education is where it starts and where it can make a difference with young people now.

Since July 15, the group has been in communication with SDUHSD Board President Beth Hergesheimer, who provided all of her emails between herself and the group.

“I have tried to be both responsive, respectful and authentic in my conversations with E4E regarding equity. I, and I venture to say our entire board, value input from our community and community partners, however, ultimately it is the responsibility of the district and board to develop plans for our San Dieguito Union High School District students,” Hergesheimer said.

Hergesheimer said that most efforts right now are focused on getting students back to school on Aug. 25, into a distance model that delivers educational quality as well as meets student needs for social, emotional and mental health support.

In her correspondence, Hergesheimer wrote that she has been speaking with the superintendent about how the board might hear more from E4E.

“I very much value your communications regarding E4E efforts to help schools and students address racism,” Hergesheimer wrote. “I hesitate to make any promise as to the date when you might present due to our current challenges in getting our school year instruction up and running given the current COVID conditions and constantly changing landscape.”

While there was not room for the item on the Aug. 27 agenda, Superintendent Robert Haley stated that the district supports “all of our students, and everyone in our community, sharing their voices, thoughts, and concerns.”

A parent protests in Encinitas on Aug. 14.

Haley said that the district has developed a series of professional development opportunities for our teachers and staff that included a specific course “Culturally Responsive Teaching” that included a module “Guiding words to help educators connect with their students and peers in support of racial justice.” Additionally, he said Deputy Superintendent Mark Miller, on behalf of the board, reviewed all of their existing policies and practices to ensure that they are formally addressing issues of harassment, bullying and issues related to injustice.

Since 2015, all district schools have participated in the Anti-Defamation League’s “No Place for Hate” program.

“Our distance learning model for fall 2020 includes student-connectedness time at all of our sites so there is time for teachers to address issues with students and to ensure all voices are being heard,” Haley said. “All of our schools have very active associated student body organizations that work very hard to ensure inclusive environments. At the district level, we have used our student summit process to hear from students who have concerns about inclusivity and racial insensitivity.”

The item was not placed on the agenda this month but Hergesheimer has invited group members to address the board during public comment.

Joy and Aya said they did not want to use the public comment avenue due to the limited time allotment—at SDUHSD board meetings, public comment is limited to two minutes and if there are more than 10 requests, speakers are selected at random prior to the meeting.

The students wanted it to be more of a discussion, similar to what has happened at neighboring school districts. The E4E group said the Encinitas Union School District has agreed to meet with them and other district feeder districts have made commitments or had board conversations on this topic.

In June, the Solana Beach School District adopted a resolution affirming its commitment to fighting institutional racism, stating the intention to “create safe and respectful learning environments where every student has equitable access and opportunity, regardless of their skin color or ethnicity.” At a board meeting in July, the Del Mar Union School District said they are taking steps to create more inclusive environments at their schools such as partnering with the local Anti-Defamation League to provide anti-bias training for teachers and every adult in their district.

On Aug. 14, Aya and Joy said they were happy to have support at the protest from students throughout the district and proud to hear from other young people who had their own stories to share and who are just as passionate: “They feel it, they know what’s happening,” Joy said.

The young women said they heard from teachers who supported their efforts and members of their group spoke to local news crews but they most hoped to catch the attention of the school board. They still want a spot on a future agenda.

“This isn’t it,” Aya said. “We are going to keep pushing.”

Her message to the board: “Just let us talk to you.”

Protest leaders Joy Ruppert and Aya Jaffer.
Protest leaders Joy Ruppert and Aya Jaffer.