Post-election tension at SLO County schools spurs appeal from superintendent

Officials at Paulding Middle School in Arroyo Grande also investigated two separate incidents involving inappropriate statements in the days following the recent election.
Officials at Paulding Middle School in Arroyo Grande also investigated two separate incidents involving inappropriate statements in the days following the recent election. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Following several reports of inappropriate comments by students at local K-12 schools during and after the 2016 presidential election, the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education issued a letter last week to local districts urging a zero-tolerance policy for behavior, rhetoric or materials that are hateful or harassing.

On Thursday, county Superintendent James Brescia sent a memo titled “Tensions in Schools Related to Election Comments,” in which he stated that negative rhetoric that appeared in local and national news media has “stoked fears and tensions” among students.

“If there is a problem in your school or community, communicate with local officials in order to send a signal that there is no place for racism, hate or bullying within our schools or community,” Brescia wrote.

A handful of incidents have occurred in local schools, but the districts can’t comment on them specifically because they involve confidential student information, and disciplinary measures are not public, Brescia said. However, no incident reached the level of his office or involved police.

Asked whether local districts had noticed a change in student atmosphere since the election, which Brescia called “the most negative experience (he’d) ever been through,” he said, “They are very much aware.”

“I would be lying if I said that people aren’t anxious,” he said.

San Luis Obispo High School Principal Leslie O’Connor said that in the days after the election, an inappropriate comment was made by one student to another during a class period. O’Connor could not provide details of that incident because of student confidentiality reasons but said school administrators met with both students and their parents to resolve the issue.

“As a result of the election, especially on election week, tensions were heightened,” O’Connor said. “On a global scale, I think we’re all at that stage where we’re processing what has transpired.”

Officials at Paulding Middle School in Arroyo Grande also investigated two separate incidents involving inappropriate statements, but Lucia Mar Unified School District spokeswoman Amy Jacobs was unable to confirm what was said or the results of the investigation.

A day after the election, a group of Paso Robles High School students reportedly shouted pro-Donald Trump slogans at Latino students, but the school has not seen instances of hate speech, Principal Eric Martinez said.

“There were some shoutouts, like ‘Go Trump,’ but they weren’t directed at specific individuals.” Martinez said of the incident. “I think they were expressing their pleasure to the outcome of the election. Latino groups there (during the incident), however, said it had a definite impact about how (they) felt.”

Martinez said school staff talked to the pro-Trump group and explained that although they have a right to free speech, that speech could not be directed at specific individuals or groups of students on school grounds.

School counselors saw an initial spike in students seeking guidance after Nov. 8, he said.

“Most were coming for support asking, ‘What does this mean for me?’ ” Martinez said.

Some schools contacted by The Tribune reported no trouble, however. Principals for Atascadero and Arroyo Grande high schools said there have been no incidents, and Arroyo Grande High Principal Conan Bowers said through his secretary that it’s been “status quo” since the election.

And although no incidents were reported at Nipomo High School, Principal John Denno said some students approached their teachers about what a Trump presidency might mean for undocumented family members or for gay or transgender people. At least one student overheard a conversation from other students that made them uncomfortable, Denno said, a situation that was corrected by staff speaking to the offending student.

“Our No. 1 obligation is to provide a safe environment for all students,” Denno said. “Sometimes we may have to redirect a student and educate them about how their actions or words may affect others.”

The local behavior reflects what is occurring nationwide.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that tracks hate groups and crimes, administered an online survey to K-12 educators nationwide in the days after the election. Of the more than 10,000 teachers, counselors, administrators and others who work in schools who responded, the organization says, 90 percent reported that their school’s climate had been negatively affected and 80 percent described “heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students worried about the impact of the election on themselves and their families.”

Tense times at SLO County schools

The letter that County Superintendent of Schools James Brescia sent Thursday to school districts in San Luis Obispo County provides educators with links to materials published by the California School Boards Association, the Association of California School Administrators and the California Parent Teacher Association to address negative behavior tied to the election while maintaining political objectivity.

Brescia’s memo followed a Nov. 28 letter sent to county education offices across the state from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who wrote that teachers are on the “front line of reassuring our kids that they are safe.”

“County Offices of Education can and should take the lead on: creating a clearinghouse to report hate and bullying, developing action plans with teachers and administrators, and measuring school climate as part of the new school accountability program,” Newsom wrote.

Where to confront hate speech

On a national level, several groups are accelerating efforts to combat hate.

Among them:

Closer to home: