ENCINITAS — People stood in the hallway straining to hear the deliberations of the five-member board of the San Dieguito Union High School District on June 7. Others who also could not get seats stood in the open doorways and along the perimeter of the room, uncomfortably shifting from foot to foot under the harsh light of overhead fluorescent panels.
The hand-held microphone used during public comment failed to project people’s voices adequately, rendering some statements inaudible. The camera that the board voted for in May to record its meetings has not yet been installed.
The board allocated $24 million in bond money to build a performing arts center at Torrey Pines High School, yet has chosen to hold board meetings at a location with insufficient parking, seating and audiovisual equipment.
Parent Lea Wolf, who often vocalizes her discontent with SDUHSD at its meetings, stated in an email exchange with The Coast News that most of the board “tries to institute ‘go along to get along’ without critically thinking about the impact on students, curriculum, and fiscal policy.” Wolf stated, “This board fears controversy and is intimidated by difficult questions,” which she noted as reasons they might not want be recorded.
Board member John Salazar, often the lone wolf who voices his opposition against the board majority, agrees. He pushed for the video recordings and voted for them, as did Maureen Muir and Amy Herman. Salazar said, “Having the video is important for parents to see and hear the board in action. The more the public knows how the system works, the more they can offer input. Very few people have the time to come to a meeting.”
Good luck following along
The agenda packet for the June 7 meeting is 614 pages long. After clicking the link on the district’s website to access it, no table of contents or jump links are provided as a navigation aid. Anyone interested in reading a particular file, then, has to comb through the pages to find it.
When asked about that, Joann Schultz, the executive assistant to the superintendent, pointed out that if the agenda is downloaded and opened with Adobe, the contents are bookmarked. But there is no note on the website advising viewers of that helpful tip, and the link on the agenda for contacting the superintendent’s office for more information on inspecting public documents does not work.
The audio recording from the May 10 board meeting, which contains distracting background noise, was posted to the district site a month later on June 11. Schultz explained that the audio recordings get posted once the minutes have been approved, but members of the public can request access to the audio recordings prior to that time. She did not have an explanation for why that is the current protocol, nor is it stated on the district site that the public can make such a request. Schultz did not know when the video recordings of the board meetings would be implemented.
Fighting for their rights
As he studies for the bar, recent law-school graduate Curtis Davis volunteers his time representing students who have either been expelled from their schools or are suspended pending expulsion. He spoke passionately during the June 7 board meeting, advocating on behalf of two SDUHSD students.
One of those students attended Torrey Pines High School until March 16, when he was expelled for one year by a vote of 4-1 by the board. Salazar, who voted no, in a recent interview said, “I believe in forgiveness.” He also stated that the district expels too many students.
Due to privacy rights surrounding expulsion, the young man’s name and the specific incident for which he was expelled cannot be disclosed here. It can be stated that the student was expelled for allegedly violating California Education Code section 48900.7, which references the making of “terroristic threats against school officials or school property, or both.”
According to education code, to be considered a “terroristic threat” there must be “specific intent that the statement is to be taken as a threat.” Furthermore, the oral or written statement “on its face and under the circumstances in which it is made, is so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to convey to the person threatened, a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution of the threat.” The boy’s family enlisted Davis’ help to appeal the district’s decision to the county, arguing that intent could not be shown.
The San Diego County Office of Education agreed on May 31, ruling that the decision was unlawful and that the boy was to be reinstated in school immediately and his expulsion expunged.
However, as Davis explained during public comment, the district has refused to comply with the order despite the fact that the county board’s decision is considered “final and binding” on both the student and the district board as well as “final when rendered.”
The boy was scheduled to return to school on June 5, but he was denied re-entry. It remains unclear how the matter will be resolved. Rick Ayala, director of pupil services and alternative programs, did not respond to a call seeking clarification.
Davis started this pro bono work while attending University of San Diego School of Law and volunteering with its Advocates for Children and Education program. While a law student, he taught special-needs students by day and took classes at night.
Davis, who has served as an education advocate in eight expulsion cases and more than 20 special-education ones, mostly represents socioeconomically disadvantaged and Spanish-speaking parents in the north interior county school districts. The first student Davis assisted with an expulsion appeal, in what education code refers to as a “nonattorney adviser” role, just graduated from Ramona High School last week.
He said, “Kids make mistakes, and there should be consequences, but the law provides a process for fairness between the student, parents and district.” Davis explained that he has concerns how “a post-9/11 climate of fear” can lead to wrongful, excessive punishment of teens.
Davis is currently helping an eighth-grader at district middle school Oak Crest who has been suspended pending expulsion. The boy’s mother spoke in Spanish, with Davis interpreting for her, during open comment on June 7.
She said her son had made a mistake, but “he’s not a danger to the school.” She said the punishment has been “severe for a 14-year-old” and that their family life since then has “not been normal.” She ended that she has “confidence in the district” to make the right decision moving forward concerning her child.