Board members received an earful at a special Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) board meeting on Tuesday night.
The meeting was held to discuss two items, both of which related to the concerns of student protesters, and both of which were presented by Brandon Gridiron, the district’s Administrator for Equity and Student Services.
The first item, a report on inclusivity in the district, expounded on efforts the district has made to reach out to multiple constituencies on how the district can better serve its diverse student groups.
The second, a “Resolution to Uplift Student Voice and Denounce Harassment and Racism,” came in response to incidents that occurred at protests along El Diamante High School’s fence facing Akers Street.
For more information on those items, click here for the Voice’s story.
Community reaching boiling point
Tuesday’s meeting was the first held after weeks of pro-Black Lives Matter protest along that fence ended, and after multiple incidents where community members against the Black Lives Matter movement tore down posted signs that they felt were offensive in what became a proverbial tug-of-war between protesters and anti-BLM community members.
Those incidents, including a widely-shared physical altercation, resulted in the district partnering with College of the Sequoias to classify one of the college’s parking lots as a free speech area and move the signs there, stating that their continued presence at El Diamante presented a safety risk to students.
At the same time students and community members were protesting at El Diamante, a social media hashtag started — #DearVUSD — in which current and former students aired their grievances against the district for allegedly failing to take action on racism, homophobia, sexual harassment and sexual assault on its campuses.
Members of the community have been split on both issues — and the public comment sections of the meeting were dominated by discussion of the district’s perceived — or actual — failings, and how it can do better.
Two students who took part in a forum on June 30 spoke directly to the board outside of the public comment period. The forum consisted of eleven current and four former students.
Michael Anne de Campos, a Redwood student, spoke first.
“We see the district time and time again wanting to educate the people that are liable — you’re liable for the teachers, but the student body are the people that are causing the disempowerment of people of color. White racist students are the problem,” she said. “If we’re not bringing a curriculum teaching students about diversity to school, if we don’t bring the conversation to them, then why would they talk about it? Why would they ever want to bring down the barriers that help them, when we’re not even trying to force them to start discussing what privilege is, what oppression is?”
De Campos said she had been at the receiving end of abuse herself.
“It’s horrible to be a student who’s in the LGBTQ community. I’ve been bullied for years, and I mean — I have it better than most, and I still had it rough,” she said.
“And you shouldn’t have to go to the administration and beg them to listen to your sexual assault story,” she added. “I have over 15 girls who have come to me directly with how they went to the administration with their sexual assault and they just disregarded it — they never received justice, and that is disgusting.”
De Campos made three requests of the board: that the district establish a district-wide code of conduct that is “relevant to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identification and orientation as well as sexual misconduct;” that the district establish a protocol for logging complaints and disciplinary action related to the code of conduct, including allegations of racial discrimination, bias, harrasment, and sexual assault allegations; that a district-wide mandatory curriculum for all high school students on the topics of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Neftaly Gonzalez, also a Redwood student, spoke next. She suggested a student diversity council at each high school.
“Establishing this districtwide structure will allow student voices to be heard at all times, rather than when tensions rise in the community or on the school sites,” she said.
She also suggested history courses that incorporate diverse student groups.
“For example, we are required to learn history that fails to acknowledge the contributions of persons of color in our society, such as African Americans, Arab Americans, Latin Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans,” she said. “In order to resolve the biased actions towards students of color, it starts by teaching their history by offering courses and curriculum that include multiple perspectives regardless of color.”
Board Member Lucia Vazquez reacted after students spoke as part of her comments.
“I would also invite the board to look at the #DearVUSD stuff that’s coming through. I have to tell you, I wept to see some of the things that our kids have gone through and that they did not feel that we were supporting them, so I would urge anybody that’s written on #DearVUSD — I would invite them to send us an email with your name, phone number, and story so that we can actually investigate it, and not just be anonymous,” she said.
The public speaks
While the vast majority of callers appeared to be in support of the protesters and those who spoke out — some involved themselves — one caller directly took the district to task for its apparent support of the student protesters.
The caller was speaking on behalf of someone who requested to remain anonymous, she said.
The writer drove past El Diamante with their oldest child, at first thinking signs along the El Diamante fence were graduation signs, before realizing they included statements such as “BLM,” “All Cops Are [expletives], This Includes Your [explitive] Dad,” and “F the Police.”
“I couldn’t believe it. How do I explain to my child, whose parent by the way is a law enforcement officer, why their school district would allow signs with such messages on school property?,” the caller stated. “Why should I have to sit down and talk to my children about the school district allowing this since now my children feel that law enforcement, including our family, are being targeted? They feel unsafe to go to school if such signs are allowed to be signed in the future.”
The district should be focusing on teaching kindness, not hate-oriented agendas, the caller told the board.
“Even more importantly, why are you allowing adults, who have adult agendas, to come in with our students? These political activists have our own agendas and enjoy stirring the hearts of our youth to anger or confusion,” she said.
The #DearVUSD movement was focused on “destroying lives,” she added.
“#DearVUSD is about destroying lives instead of cheering for the many teachers and administrators that have done so much for our youth. Again, I want to be clear: I’m not advocating for those employees who have done wrong, I agree with the dealing of employees who have done wrong because they do need to be fired or removed from positions of influence or authority, however I do not condone behavior that encourages slander.”
Choosing to allow the signs to be displayed “implies an acceptance of hate and violence from our school district,” the caller stated, asking for the board to prohibit the signs from being placed on district property in the future.
Another caller, Leslie Diaz, a local activist, stated that she would be phone banking with ACT for Women to start a campaign to take police out of Visalia’s schools. She encouraged the board to continue the progress it was on, but stated that she wanted to “make sure that y’all know we are taking this very seriously, and we hope that you are too.”
Tiffany Villagomez, a 21-year-old former Mt. Whitney student, said she wanted to tell the board her #DearVUSD story. She was the victim of a sexual assault while she was a student at Mt. Whitney, though the assault did not take place on campus — it took place in front of the school, she later told the Voice.
“It took a lot for me to decide to press charges against my rapist. It didn’t happen on campus, but for some reason they still assigned my case to [the school resource officer]; I had to go to therapy for years,” she told the board. “It took a long time for me to kind of process everything and make the stance that yeah, I do want to press charges, and I went to MW the next morning and [the officer] was talking to a teacher, I don’t remember who it was, by the front gate in the courtyard..”
At that point VUSD Board President John Crabtree asked Dedi Somavia, VUSD’s Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, if it was appropriate for the caller to be sharing her story during public comment.
“Is it something that could be a legal challenge of some sort?” he asked.
“Yeah — President Crabtree, thank you for bringing that forward,” she responded.
Somavia asked Tiffany to contact her, “especially if it’s something that needs to be investigated,” and asked for anyone with a #DearVUSD story to send it directly to her so that the district can investigate their claim. The caller attempted to resume her story but was disconnected.
Crabtree later told the Voice that he made the decision out of caution for any potential legal issues.
“She seemed to have had some issue when she was going to high school, some of a sexual nature or something, and that really, if it’s something that could be litigated then talking about it at that moment was not the appropriate time, nor was I the person to be discussing it with, nor was the board,” Crabtree said.
Villagomez told the Voice she wanted to share her story because some board members did not appear to be familiar with the #DearVUSD movement happening on social media. While she understood that her story was likely to be a sensitive subject, she was determined “not to censor herself,” she said.
“I was really hoping for a different response, but when they cut me off I thought, ‘Thanks, you just proved to me what I’ve been thinking. That you don’t want to hear this,’” she said. “Why even bother coming out about these things if you’re just gonna get shut down?”
She did, however, praise district representatives that she felt were more receptive to students, such as Vazquez, Board Member John Guerrero, and Gridiron.
Crabtree said he encouraged anyone who wanted to reach out to board members to head to the district’s website and email them directly. He is open to any conversation, so long as it’s civil, he said.
“If anyone wants to talk to a board member, all they have to do is go to the website, our email address is there, and our telephone numbers are there, and they’re certainly welcome to call me, as long as they’re civil,” he told the Voice.
After Villagomez was disconnected, De Campos spoke again to the board.
“What a lot of them want to see, they don’t want justice now. They want to know that you guys are going to establish a protocol so that it doesn’t happen again,” she said. “We already have the trauma. We’re here to make sure no one else has to go through what we went through.”
At one point, after student comments, Guerrero said that mandated reporter training should be given to all staff members. Tamara Ravalin, the VUSD Superintendent, said district staff were given that training twice a year.
William Fulmer, also a board member, stated that he “could remember a specific incident where a teacher said ‘my principal told me not to bother to report that,’ and I said, that could cost you your credential — you let the CPS people decide if there’s a problem.”
The last caller for the night’s meeting, identified only as a former Visalia Unified student, stated that she believed the board needed to directly address the #DearVUSD complaints coming from students.
“Not only do they need an investigation by the district, but I think the community does deserve to hear a statement,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a statement involving specific allegations or names.”
“Right now, the silence from the district is deafening,” she added.
Crabtree under fire
During the meeting, Board President John Crabtree appeared to be taking fire from multiple commenters.
One caller, Diego, had his remarks on students’ posters cut off due to time by Crabtree. He then turned on Crabtree as he was being removed from the conference call.
“Um, Mr. Crabtree, I would also like to say that I’ve noticed you the entire meeting, and I noticed that you kind of don’t care at all,” he said.
“Oh, really — really, I don’t care at all? That’s a pretty strong accusation my friend. I think you should take that back, because you don’t know me at all. And how you can judge that based on me listening to this meeting is beyond my imagination,” Crabtree responded, appearing to bristle at the remarks.
Later in the meeting, Crabtree stated that he was “sorry that I cut [Diego] off, but I gave you four minutes,” and stated that running a meeting was a “very busy practice” — just because he had to look away from his webcam, that doesn’t mean he didn’t care.
Crabtree later reiterated to the Voice that he didn’t know how the caller could make that assessment – and said he believed the caller dialed in to put him on the spot.
“Think about this – that one girl, or guy I guess it was, that called in. They call in under false pretenses because their calls are screened, and then they say to me, Mr. Crabtree, I don’t think you care at all,” he said. “Well how did you surmise that from sitting there and watching me on a Zoom screen while I’m running a meeting as I had said later on?”
During the meeting, Crabtree — stepping down from the dais and speaking during public comment, while acknowledging that he appeared to be “under fire from all sides” — also revealed that he was the target of a recall effort, and disputed the points made in that petition. For more information about the recall effort, click here.
He called the allegations “misrepresented and unfounded,” an affront to the rest of the board, and stated that citizens could contact him to hear his responses and find out more.
De Campos, the student speaker, posted on Twitter later endorsing the effort to recall Crabtree, claiming he was “racist and sexist” and that he did not “support diversity education nor holding staff accountable who neglect racism & sexual assault allegations from students.”
She also told the Voice that she was disappointed with Crabtree’s actions during the meeting.
“If he cared about students he would open the #DearVUSD hashtag or even read the email a fellow board member sent him to educate him on these horrible traumas students have experienced,” she said. “I am astonished that an elected official would think it is not their job to follow through with policy and accountability. How are we to enact change when the board president shuts down our stories and ignores our pleas because they make him uncomfortable?”
Crabtree said those statements couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I would love to know how she drew those conclusions. I would love to know that,” he told the Voice.
Crabtree says he grew up in a poor neighborhood as a child, had Black friends and white friends, and the man he considered like a second father was gay. That, combined with his military service alongside people of all color, has made him “as open minded as you can be.”
He has no problem with diverse groups, he said.
“I’m telling you, this stuff is being fed to her, and I know where it’s coming from, and it’s disgusting,” he said. “It’s absolutely disgusting, because I am not a sexist, I’m not a racist. I’m probably about as open minded as you can be.”
He repeated that he was open to “civilized” discussion with anyone who had a concern.
“I will not have uncivilized discourse with anyone. If you’re gonna challenge me and you’re gonna listen to what I gotta say, I’m going to listen,” he said. “But I’m not going to take anything from people just so they can abuse me, because of what they think I am and what they think I stand for.”