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Students Call On State Board Of Education To Address Safety, Equity And Mental Health

A high school student is standing behind a podium in a conference room. She is wearing a black blazer and appears to be Asian American. There are many students sitting behind her, with the majority of them wearing medical masks.
Ellie Lian, president of the California Association of Student Councils, speaks at Wednesday's State Board of Education meeting.
(Screenshot of State Board of Education)
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This story was originally published by EdSource.

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 centered on five issues: school safety, socioeconomic equity, teacher misconduct, political literacy and peer counseling.

The board presentation capped off a four-day conference that involved dozens of student delegates from across the state who make up the Student Advisory Board on Education. This delegation aims to represent the voices of nearly 5.9 million students in California.

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“Hearing about the unique conditions from students from all across California coalesce into a collective movement of change has reaffirmed the power of youth,” said Ellie Lian, a senior at Portal High School in Orange County and president of the California Association of Student Councils.

Safety plans

Ashley Castillo described the chaos that ensued at Hollywood High School in September when police received a false report of an active shooter — a phenomenon known as “swatting.” Miscommunication between law enforcement agencies and the school created pandemonium after police received the false report, Castillo said. Students in her classroom didn’t know what to do when the school principal announced that the school was going into lockdown, Castillo said. She said police arrived at the school, weapons drawn, before the school officials knew what was happening. Police evacuated students into an open field.

“This caused trauma, panic and put students’ lives at risk in the span of two hours,” said Castillo. “If there had been a genuine threat to student safety, the consequences could have been devastating.”

Schools don’t have a responsibility to prevent every emergency, but everyone at a school should know what to do when the worst happens, Castillo said.

Students also recommended that communication be improved between schools and other agencies, including law enforcement.

They also called for creating new school safety guidelines. That includes posting evacuation maps in every classroom, routine schoolwide assemblies on safety and a mandate that accessible safety information be sent home with students every year. Under the students’ proposal, local agencies would be able to tailor their safety plans to what poses the greatest threat in their community, whether shootings, drug addiction or wildfire.

Community input

The Student Advisory Board of Education also called for changes that ensure low-income students have a bigger say in the way schools spend money. Students said there needs to be more community engagement during the process of developing each school district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan — or the plan for spending money targeted at groups such as low-income students, English learners and foster and homeless youth.

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Students recommend that schools do heavy outreach to communities that may not know about the Local Control and Accountability Plan process or do not feel welcome. That includes offering translation services, transportation and the ability to participate remotely.

Teacher misconduct

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 Unified, pointed to an incident in which a Riverside high school math teacher was fired after being recorded mimicking Native American stereotypes.

“Students should not have to rely on internet virality and community resources in order to hold their own teachers accountable for misconduct,” said Ahola.

Students recommended that the state’s uniform complaint procedures be used to create a universal form — rather than relying on local school agencies to create their own. This complaint form would be readily available online, in person and in several languages. The ultimate goal of reducing barriers to complaints is to create a safer learning environment.

“Students often feel as if they have no power in holding their own teachers accountable for misconduct,” said Ahola.

Board member James J. McQuillen suggested that restorative practices be considered as a part of the complaint procedure. Board member Haydee Rodriguez asked whether there would be safeguards to protect against students who might want to weaponize the complaint process.

“I would hate for a student who just got a bad grade on a test or on an assignment to interpret that as bullying,” said Rodriguez.

Ahola responded that though the current uniform procedure does provide confidentiality, it does not allow anonymous complaints.

Political literacy

Students called on the state board to update what it called “antiquated” civic education standards. They pointed to a 2020 survey demonstrating that 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. That’s too little and too late, she said. She said it is especially important in this era of political polarization that students have nonpartisan, credible information about what it means to be a voter or a civically engaged citizen.

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

Students can be encouraged to learn about participatory democracy at all ages and even in subjects outside of history and social studies. From a young age, students should be given experiences that model democracy, such as selecting student leaders or allowing young students to choose their line leaders. For older students, political literacy should be integrated into courses such as science and English — the latter a subject in which students can learn how to analyze language and look for bias.

Peer counseling

Students called on the state to expand student access to peer counseling services by creating guidelines for schools to establish their own programs. Peer counseling trains students to become informed confidants who are empathetic and good at relating to their peers.

Students said they need more help with mental health issues, especially in the wake of the pandemic, but counseling resources at many schools are thin, and students don’t always trust adults. The Student Advisory Board on Education pointed to many established peer counseling programs throughout the state and nonprofit groups such as Mental Health First Aid, which has trained both adults and teens.

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