Students urge state board to address safety, equity and mental health

Screenshot of the State Board of Education

Eli Liane, president of the California Student Council Association, speaks at the State Board of Education meeting on Wednesday.

Student representatives from across California made a series of policy and curriculum recommendations during a presentation to the State Board of Education Wednesday morning.

The students’ presentation focused on five topics: school safety, socioeconomic justice, teacher misconduct, political literacy, and peer counseling.

The board’s presentation concludes a four-day conference featuring dozens of student delegates from across the state who make up the Student Advisory Board on Education (SABE). This delegation seeks to represent the voices of California’s nearly 5.9 million students.

“Hearing the unique circumstances from students across California coming together in a collective movement for change reaffirmed the power of youth,” said Ellie Liane, a senior at Portal High School in Orange County and president of the California Student Council Association.

Security plans

Ashley Castillo described the chaos that erupted at Hollywood High School this September when police received a false report of an active shooter — a phenomenon known as a “backlash.” A misunderstanding between law enforcement and the school created pandemonium after police received a false tip, Castillo said. Students in her class didn’t know what to do when the school’s principal announced the school was closing, Castillo said. She said police arrived at the school with guns drawn before school officials knew what was happening. The police evacuated the students to an open field.

“It caused trauma, panic and endangered the lives of students for two hours,” Castillo said. “If there was a real threat to student safety, the consequences could be devastating.”

Schools are not responsible for preventing every emergency, but everyone in the school should know what to do if the worst happens, Castillo said.

The students also recommended improving communication between schools and other agencies, including law enforcement.

They also called for new school safety guidelines. This includes posting evacuation maps in every classroom, regular school-wide safety meetings, and the obligation to send available safety information home with students each year. Under the students’ proposal, local authorities would be able to tailor their safety plans to what poses the greatest threat in their community, whether it’s a shooting, drug addiction or wildfire.

Community input

The Student Education Advisory Council also called for changes to ensure that low-income students have more influence over how schools spend money. Students said each school district needs more community involvement in the process of developing a local control and accountability plan — or a plan to spend money targeting groups like low-income students, English language learners, and foster and homeless youth.

The students recommend that schools conduct intensive outreach to communities that may not be aware of the LCAP process or feel unwelcome. This includes offering translation services, transportation or the possibility of remote participation.

Misbehavior of the teacher

The students recommended making it easier for students to file a formal complaint about discrimination, bullying or harassment they experience in the classroom. Ida Ahola, a senior at Northwood High School in Irvine United, drew attention to an incident where a math teacher at Riverside High School was fired after he was recorded mimicking Native American stereotypes.

“Students should not rely on Internet virality and community resources to hold their teachers accountable for misconduct,” Ahola said.

The students recommended using the state’s uniform complaint procedures to create a universal form, rather than relying on local school agencies to create their own. This complaint form could easily be obtained online, in person and in multiple languages. The ultimate goal of reducing barriers to complaints is to create a safer learning environment.

“Students often feel they have no way to hold their teachers accountable for misconduct,” Ahola said.

Board member James J. McQuillen suggested considering restorative practices as part of the grievance procedure. Heidi Rodriguez asked if there would be safeguards in place against students who might want to use the grievance process as a weapon.

“I wouldn’t want a student who just got a bad grade on a test or an assignment to take that as bullying,” Rodriguez said.

Ahola responded that while the current uniform procedure ensures confidentiality, it does not allow for anonymous complaints.

Political literacy

The students called on the State Board to update what it called “outdated” civics education standards. They pointed to a recent poll that found nearly half of adults couldn’t name the three branches of government.

Gwen Singer, a senior at Van Nuys High School, said most of what students learn about civics comes during one semester of their senior year. It’s too little too late, she said. In this era of political polarization, she said, it’s especially important that students have nonpartisan, trustworthy information about what it means to be a voter or an active citizen.

“When students are well educated and politically literate, democracy becomes accessible,” Singer said.

Students can be encouraged to study participatory democracy at any age and even in subjects unrelated to history and social studies. From a young age, students should be given experiences that model democracy, such as electing student leaders or allowing young students to elect their own line leaders. For older students, political literacy should be an integrated program like science and English, a subject where students can learn to analyze language and look for bias.

Peer counseling

The students called on the state to expand student access to counseling services by developing guidelines for schools to create their own programs. Peer counseling teaches students to become informed confidants, empathetic, and kind to their peers.

Students said they need more help with mental health issues, especially after the pandemic, but counseling resources are few at many schools and students don’t always trust adults. The Student Education Advisory Council pointed to the many established peer counseling programs across the state and nonprofit groups such as Mental Health First Aid, which educate both adults and teens.

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