The race for four contested seats on the Visalia Unified School District Board of Education is taking on an ugly tone, with accusations from candidates of an inadequate response by staff to student-on-student violence and unethical union politics on the city’s campuses.
Student Attack at Middle School
What is emerging as a troubling issue facing VUSD is student-on-student violence at VUSD campuses. While the issue of violence has been constant for all schools, a recent incident at Divisadero Middle School that became well-known due to a social media post from the victim’s mother has brought how the district handles physical violence among students to the forefront.
Misty Mae – mother of the girl who was attacked by a fellow female student during a break – made public a video taken by a third student involved in the planned attack on her daughter. In the post, Mae said she felt compelled to share the video to increase pressure on the VUSD to change how they react to violent incidents.
“The last thing I wanted to do was post this video but the school has tired my hands because they refuse to do what’s necessary for my child to feel safe at school!” Mae wrote.
Mae was not interviewed for this article.
In the brief video, Mae’s daughter is seen being attacked from behind by another female student. The attacker pulled her victim to the ground by her hair, punching her repeatedly in the back of the head as she lay on the ground. The attack ended when someone – identified by VUSD Superintendent Kirk Shrum as a staff member – pushed the assailant off the victim.
Assailant Remained on Campus
In communications with the district and on facebook Mae said her daughter’s civil rights have been violated by the VUSD’s response to the attack.
Mae filed a report with police regarding the incident, and a restraining order has been issued against the student who attacked her daughter; however, Mae said the district has refused to enforce it, allowing the student who attacked her daughter to remain on campus. Her daughter has refused to return to school since the assault.
Mae asked the public to share the video to help “make some noise” about the issue.
Addressing violence during the VUSD trustees meeting on September 27, Superintendent Shrum said posts like Mae’s distort the events surrounding incidents of on-campus violence among students, presenting false narratives.
“When it comes to social media, oftentimes you see comments that don’t reflect the whole story, that can sometimes generate images that may not be accurate,” he said. “As long as we’ve had schools, we’ve had students who make poor choices on campus. But what has changed recently is the posting and use of social media to enhance a narrative that just isn’t true, further encouraging or perpetuating student involvement in these types of behavior.”
He did not address if the violent student has been allowed to remain on campus or what disciplinary action was taken.
Shrum: Seven fight-related suspensions per day at VUSD schools
The district’s response, Shrum said, is a crackdown on cyber bullying, including an effort to educate students and their families on the dangers of using social media.
“Students that use social media to instigate disruption or bullying will face significant consequences and even potentially legal charges,” he said.
He also said there has been a “slight uptick” in “suspensions related to fights” among students in the VUSD. Shrum reported 409 suspensions in August and September 2019, compared to 447 in August and September 2022. That represents an average of 6.7 daily suspensions related to fights in 2019 – the last full school year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic – versus 7.3 per day this year.
Despite this, Shrum claims the violence can be attributed to just a handful of problem students.
“When you take that number and divide it among our 29,000 students and divide it across our campuses, that’s essentially 10 students who have chosen to engage in behavior that is inappropriate,” he said. “Again, that’s a generalization. Many of our campuses may not even have a suspension.”
The current suspension rate for VUSD students is between 1% and 2%, Shrum said. Despite the number of daily fights, Visalia’s schools are not violent places.
“The narrative that this is a large issue disrupting our schools on a routine basis, perpetuated by [social media], isn’t the reality on our campuses. I want you to hear from me that that’s not our story,” he said.
VUSD Area 4 candidate Crystal Reynolds, however, said there is a fine line between protecting students from attacks that have the potential to turn deadly and violating all students’ right to speak freely in public. She believes the district does not treat online threats of student-on-student violence as seriously as they should be.
“As a parent, I notice there’s a difference in the way that we respond to social media threats,” she said. “There’s definitely a difference when we get a social media threat of a child that says they’re going to go shoot up a school versus what happens when another student is threatening to beat up another student.”
The attack at Divisadero is an example of the district’s failure to respond appropriately, Reynold said.
“In the recent case, that’s what was happening, and the student did get attacked,” she said. “My concern is how far are we going to let that go? Where do we draw the line?”
VUSD Area 1 candidate Jesse Perez, while not addressing the issue of on-campus violence and the district’s response to it, said VUSD leadership must lead by modeling the preferred behavior. He was speaking at a candidates forum held October 4.
“We (have) got to set the standard in education and excellence, not only demand it out of our students, but demand it out of ourselves, out of our faculty and out of our staffs,” he said. “We (have) got to set the example, because as I know as a parent, people don’t do what – your children aren’t – going to do what you say; they’re going to do what you do.”
‘You Just Lost a Student’
Melissa Brewer, a parent and community advocate, described a history of violent behavior at Divisadero, a school she attended. Speaking at the September 27 meeting, she reminded the trustees it was a student from Divisadero who killed Visalia Police Officer James Rapozo on Christmas Eve in 1997. The incident occurred while Brewer was also a student there. She also described being shown a handgun in class, an incident that was apparently ignored at the time.
“We have a history here at Visalia Unified of pushing things under the rug. If we don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen. It’s not that bad,” Brewer said. “For the kid who got attacked at Divisadero, who doesn’t want to go back to school, it is that bad. She may never go back to school. You just lost a student.”
Brewer said she requested trustees create a safety task force in January to address student violence. At the time, members of the board seemed receptive, she said, but later backed away from that stance, ignoring what Brewer called an obvious problem.
“Every single day something is happening on these campuses,” she said. “My kids see it. The world’s kids see it in Visalia. You’re not fooling anybody but yourself.”
She also expressed anger at the idea of parents speaking online about the issue of campus violence making matters worse.
“I am just so disgusted to hear that it wasn’t that big of a deal, and that social media just makes it worse, just to push it off,” Brewer said. “This is our story, and our story is going to end really badly if we don’t start addressing the issues.”
Candidate Alleges Union Slurs
Meanwhile, Area 2 candidate Paul Belt said he was slandered by a representative of the Visalia Unified Teachers Association during an on-campus meeting of teachers at Annie Mitchell Elementary School. The union rep, Belt reported, called him a “teacher hater.”
In attendance at the meeting was Belt’s wife, a veteran teacher with the VUSD. According to an account of the meeting by longtime VUSD volunteer Jerry Jensen, the union representative singled out Belt’s wife, allegedly describing candidates challenging the sitting trustees as “people who hate teachers.” Jensen said the presentation was also given at Crestwood Elementary School.
Belt is a teacher, as are several of his relatives. He said the comments have created a hostile workplace for his wife and asked trustees to respond to the behavior that caused it.
“I would like the board to address when the union makes such absolute lies to their members on campus,” Belt said. “That’s what happened last Monday following a staff meeting. My wife is now in a hostile workplace set up by the teachers union of Visalia. This should stop.”
He called the unfounded statement about him unethical.
“If you can’t come up with actual facts and information, don’t say anything at all,” Belt said.