How racial tension has trickled down to Paso High School — and what kids are doing about it

Paso Robles High School students have had a tumultuous year.

Since the 2016 election, the school — one of the most diverse in the county with 54 percent of the student body identifying as non-white — has grappled with political and racial issues exposed by a changing national climate.

This spring, a school gun control event and a City Council debate about California's "sanctuary state" law showed fissures in the North County community and the high school.

In March, Paso students participated in the school's National Walkout Day event, held to raise awareness about gun violence and remember the 17 students and staff members killed during a February school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

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During the event, the Progressive Club set up booths on the campus quad, and members of the Conservative Club held a "Second Amendment march" with 'Don't Tread on Me' and 'Make America Great Again' flags.

After the event, a fight involving four students broke out. Some students said the fight had racial overtones and was related to the event and march.

Over the course of the ensuing weeks, police investigated potential threats at the school spread through Snapchat. During one investigation, students were required to shelter in place while officers searched the campus for firearms.

Another Snapchat threat resulted in the arrest of two students for firearm violations.

About a month later, City Council members began discussing California's "sanctuary state" law, and community members talked about their fears of an "illegal alien invasion."

At a meeting the following month, the presidents of the high school's Progressive and Conservative clubs spoke alongside undocumented immigrant students protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The flurry of conflicts have led to increased vigilance by police and school administrators.

Cmdr. Ty Lewis, who will become the Paso Robles Police Department's next chief in July, said officers investigated threats at the high school that mostly turned out to be "rumor-mongering."

"I think there's been a lot of words, heated words, exchanged over the year," he said.

Lewis said his department and the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District are in talks to hire a school resource officer who would primarily work at the high school but would be available to sites district-wide.

The district previously had a resource officer, but the position was cut during the Great Recession, Lewis said.

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Principal Eric Martinez said he doesn't think the high school has racial issues, although there are tensions between specific groups of students.

"I would probably say there are a lot of discussions around race," Martinez said.

He acknowledged the need for more education about students' cultural backgrounds, and said administrators have met with multiple campus groups in an attempt to better understand their points of view.

"It's sensitive," Martinez said. "We have to make sure we move cautiously."

With the last few months as a backdrop, The Tribune talked to five students about their experiences to better understand what it was like to attend the high school this year.

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Mason Seden-Hansen, president of Paso Robles High School's Progressive Club.

Mason Seden-Hansen, Progressive Club president

Mason Seden-Hansen, 18, has had a busy senior year.

In addition to being a competitive student — Seden-Hansen aims to become class valedictorian when he graduates this month — he's also a part-time activist and an editor for The Crimson, the school's news magazine.

During his four years at the high school, Seden-Hansen said he's seen the 2016 election and its aftermath make existing divides more volatile: "It's kind of like a fire — the wood was already there."

"I feel like we're lucky to have a diverse student body," he said. "Of course, that leads to clashes."

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Seden-Hansen said some students were angered by the Conservative Club's Second Amendment march. He said he even saw one of his friends, an undocumented immigrant, getting emotional.

"These issues really deeply affect some people," he said. "I can tell it definitely takes a toll on my friends who are immigrants."

Seden-Hansen also said he's heard of hate incidents, such as a swastika drawn on the ground.

Seden-Hansen said he hopes such events have helped change the school's culture. He plans to continue his progressive activism at UCLA, where he'll study applied math starting next fall.

"I like to think I've done a little bit to try and help those problems," he said.

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Justin Smith, president of the Paso Robles High School Conservative Club.

Justin Smith, Conservative Club president

Justin Smith, 17, has spent the year finding ways to express his political beliefs at a school where many students might disagree with him.

The junior started the Conservative Club in November and said he wanted to create a setting in which he could respectfully discuss his views.

But after the club's march on National Walkout Day, he said members of the club received threats.

"There were people saying our Second Amendment march was racist," Smith said.

Smith said he personally received threats and couldn't walk around campus by himself for about a month. He said six members of the club left campus due to threats: "The administration did a very poor job of protecting us."

The atmosphere at the school has been tense, and Smith said he thinks the solution is to have more political discussions: "The greatest way to fix this is to have more of these conversations."

When asked if he thinks the school has a race problem, Smith said, "Not really."

"People are really sensitive," he said.

Smith said he hopes to continue his club's work and help other high schools in the area start their own conservative organizations.

"I think there should be an outlet for people to express their opinions," he said. "Why can't high school students have these conversations?"

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Paso Robles High School sophmore Mairin McNerney, who is involved in Associated Student Body school leadership.

Mairin McNerney, Associated Student Body leadership

Mairin McNerney, 16, has used her role as a student leader to promote kindness and tolerance at the high school.

The sophomore, who's part of the Associated Student Body (ASB) leadership class, said the school's atmosphere has been strained since the National Walkout Day event.

Even though she's a younger student, McNerney said she noticed a change on campus: "I don't think things (before) were like they were this year."

To help lighten the mood, McNerney and her ASB classmates helped put on "Kindness Week" in May.

Students wore T-shirts that read "Radiate kindness" and wrote kind messages on pieces of paper and connected them — literally showing how kindness links people together.

"Our school just felt really connected that week," McNerney said.

McNerney also participated in the high school's annual Bearcats Care event, which is put on by the peer communication class. Students come together to discuss how they can improve school culture.

She said she thinks expanding the Bearcats Care event to include more students and multiple events would help improve the school's climate.

"I would love to see something like that school-wide," she said. "It was just really interesting to see how people were able to communicate."

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Paso Robles High School senior Valeria Cisneros, editor of The Crimson, the school's news magazine.

Valeria Cisneros, Crimson editor-in-chief

Valeria Cisneros, 18, has used her platform as editor of the high school's news magazine to tell DACA students' stories.

The senior has helped produce written stories and videos — some in both Spanish and English — showing how DACA students cope with uncertain lives, especially after President Donald Trump's administration in September announced plans to end the program.

In fact, the Journalism Education Association of Northern California recently recognized the publication for its series on Dreamers and the DACA program.

But Cisneros said not all students have reacted well to The Crimson's stories, with some asking why the news magazine has focused articles on a specific group of people.

"All of a sudden, we're being called 'the liberal newspaper' or 'the Hispanic newspaper,'" she said.

Although Cisneros has felt comfortable at the high school, she said there's always been tensions between different groups of students at the high school.

"I think it's not just at the school," Cisneros said. "It's America, in general. People cannot put themselves in other people's shoes."

Administrators could be doing more to address divisions, rather than "trying to smooth things over," she said.

"They should, in turn, be saying, 'This is what's happening, and this is what we're doing to fix it,'" Cisneros said.

After she graduates this month, Cisneros said she plans to attend Cuesta College and continue to help out with The Crimson.

Overall, she said she sees things changing in Paso Robles and at the high school: "I've seen a lot more people of color coming in."

"You're not going to see just one face in the classroom," Cisneros said. "You're going to see a whole bunch of faces."

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Diana Gonzalez is a Paso Robles High School senior and DACA recipient. Joe Johnston

Diana Gonzalez, DACA student

Diana Gonzalez, 18, has had a turbulent senior year.

Gonzalez — who was brought to the United States illegally from Michoacán, Mexico, when she was 6 years old — is one of about 200,000 Californians protected by the DACA program.

The program, which President Barack Obama's administration enacted in 2012, allows young adults who were brought to the country as children before 2012 to receive temporary legal status for two years.

Although the Trump administration last year announced plans to end the program, a federal judge in January issued an injunction allowing individuals protected by DACA to apply to renew their status.

Gonzalez said her family came to Paso Robles to be with her grandparents — who are citizens — and her father, who spent much of her early childhood working in the United States.

She renewed her DACA status last year, so she'll be protected for at least another year.

Initially, Gonzalez said she thought of DACA as a way to get a job: "I realized it was much more than that." Now, she calls it "a big weight lifted off my shoulders."

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"Before, it wasn't really on your mind as much," she said.

Gonzalez spoke at a recent City Council discussion on California's "sanctuary state" law. She said comments calling undocumented immigrants "illegal alien invaders" threw her off.

"I think of an invader as someone who wants to do harm," Gonzalez said. "You can't just focus on the people who are doing bad stuff."

She said she's never felt judged at the high school, although at least one of her friends has heard racist comments.

"I definitely feel like they do (have a race problem)," Gonzalez said. "It's just on the down-low."

After graduating, Gonzalez plans to study social work at Fresno State. She said she disagrees with those who say undocumented immigrants are stealing college opportunities from Americans.

"You have to work to go to college in the first place," she said. "You have to earn your spot."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a state award The Crimson team won for its coverage of Dreamers and the DACA program.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseymholden
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