School climate took center stage at Tuesday night's school board meeting, among board members and audience members alike.
At least 50 residents attended the board meeting in Danville, many of them to show support for a San Ramon Valley High School incoming senior who was the subject of some outrage after he was elected as next year's student body president despite creating a campaign video criticized as Islamophobic.
The video in question was produced in February and posted online. It was taken down shortly after being posted, meaning that few people actually saw the video, but students and parents who showed up en masse at the May 23 school board meeting said it depicted a teen being abducted by Islamic terrorists.
The student, who received the most votes in the associated student body (ASB) president election, was initially disqualified from holding the post due to the campaign video but he was later reinstated. Some speakers at last month's meeting contended that the district reversed its decision only because the student's parents threatened legal action, citing the punishment as a violation of his right to free speech.
But speakers at Tuesday's meeting, many of them carrying signs that depicted a no symbol over phrases like "smear campaign targeting minors," had a different story to tell.
Crystal Lu, president of the Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation, was first to take the microphone, noting that she wanted to correct various misconceptions that she felt had been circulated within the community and via social media, especially, she said, since much of the commentary was based on hearsay.
The student at the center of the controversy, she said, was from a working class family, "not a rich family as described by many people," she said. He is slated to be the first Asian American to be elected as student body president of SRVHS, she added, and was dedicated in his love for helping poor and disabled students.
Lu said she and a handful of others reached out to the family's attorney and were able to view the video in question. "The video was pretty evident to us to be a parody, featuring a James Bond-like character rescuing a game guru, kidnapped by two bad guys," Lu said. "And those bad guys wanted to force the hostage to play in a gaming tournament on their behalf. So that's the story."
She condemned social media and other media outlets for fueling the collective outrage directed at the student, as well as critiquing two members of the school community whom she felt had played a central role in spurring on public outcry: "the leadership teacher who appointed the student who lost in the election to actually be the winner while the boy was still under interrogation in the school office" and a "parent who started the smear campaign."
Other speakers also focused on the role of social media in fueling what they saw as an unhealthy campaign against the student.
San Ramon Valley High parent Shirley Lapp asked the board members to consider adding parent education to their list of action steps to be taken to improve school climate.
"Many of those who commented on social media have damaged their relationships with their children through a terrible example of online behavior and through hypocrisy in what they tried to teach their kids to do with cyberbullying online," she said.
Since a discussion on school climate was on the agenda, board members said they could respond directly to speakers -- unlike at the last meeting, at which all the comments came during public input on non-agenda items.
All board members alluded to the last few weeks as having been some of the toughest of their time on the board, saying they received messages from people all over the country and even across the globe, some petitioning for their recall.
The ASB campaign video has been one of two social media-related controversies SRVHS has faced in recent weeks -- the other being a case of cyberbullying in which a female varsity athlete posted a video online of a sophomore girl urinating in a locked bathroom stall.
"What made me really sad about the last board meeting was that it took blowing something out of proportion and misrepresenting it to get the members of our Islamic community to come to us and tell us how they're hurting," school board member Rachel Hurd said. "Because the stories that were shared by students and parents that night were real, and were things that we care about."
Talk about this specific case fed into a larger conversation about tolerance, free speech and restorative justice in San Ramon Valley schools.
"As this whole controversy bears out, we're going to have a healthy discussion in this community about what zero tolerance means," Hurd said. "Or the words 'this behavior won't be tolerated.' It means the behavior won't be tolerated. It means it won't go unchecked, unnoticed. It does not mean the student will not be tolerated and is out of here."
Board president Mark Jewett said he wanted to validate some of the ideas mentioned at the previous board meeting, recounting having sat down with an Islamic family to watch the entire video. They tensed up, he said, and in the end, couldn't see the parody.
"There is a side to this story. What may or may not be offensive to some, is definitely offensive and inappropriate to others," he said.
He added that this should have been a teachable moment, used to educate all of their students on the value of tolerance. "When we lose the ability to disagree with civility, we lose the ability to move forward," he said.
Assistant superintendent of educational services Toni Taylor outlined some of the steps that had been taken in the district with regards to school climate, including ensuring that each school had staff trained in cultural responsiveness, investing in two district-wide culturally and linguistically responsive coaches and partnering with the Anti-Defamation League.
This month, she said, board members would be meeting with community Islamic groups, and they would be replacing the current task force with a community action group that would include local multicultural groups.
"This has been an extremely difficult year," Taylor said. "We have really invested time and effort into the climate issues and our commitment is to continue to spend all the resources that we need to ensure that our schools are inclusive, safe and inviting environments for all of our students."
Public speaker Thomas Tellner spoke on behalf of several groups that were present at the May 23 board meeting, delivering a letter with 1,300 signatures and asking the board to take two specific actions: one, that the board and district employees continue to publicly condemn Islamophobia, and two, that board members reach out to local Islamic resources to help the community learn more about "one community that was impacted by this issue," he said.
He then spoke on his own behalf, as a community member and a Muslim. "There are a lot of different communities in this district; we do have a plurality," he said. "It is worth fighting for. But I think there's still a lot we have to learn about each other."