It was a story that drew attention across the community and across the region, as the Bee ran the headline: “This district in a liberal California city marked down the names of student protesters.”
That district was DJUSD as the Bee reported, “School officials in Davis, a college town that’s one of the state’s most liberal cities, told students in advance they would get a mark on their attendance record if they chose to walk out Wednesday.”
Spokesperson Maria Clayton told the Bee in a phone interview that “the district respected their First Amendment right, but added the expressing that right came with consequences.” She said it wasn’t like a school pep rally.
This drew the ire of many in the community, including Board Member Madhavi Sunder who registered that the “the Board address the issue of discipline for student walkouts at our next scheduled meeting on April 5.”
She told her colleagues in a statement on Thursday, “I believe that the district and the Board failed to take advantage of a unique educational opportunity that this emergent national youth movement presents.”
Ms. Sunder pointed out that a million children “mobilized peacefully and passionately across the country at 10 a.m. yesterday to tell their elected representatives in Washington, DC that the right to be safe and secure in school is a fundamental human right.
“I am incredibly proud that 1300 Davis students joined them. More than 200 elementary school students in Davis participated in the organized national walkout,” she said.
She stated, “I am disappointed that Davis took a tentative approach to this national event, the purpose of which was first and foremost to honor the innocent fallen – students, teachers and staff.
We are all Parkland. I believe it would have been empowering to Davis students, teachers and staff to have more fully supported their engagement in this national moment of mourning and advocacy for safe schools.”
Superintendent John Bowes noted in his comment that students across the district took part in the walkouts and did so in an “orderly, calm, peaceful and respectful” manner.
However, he made it clear that “students and our school community received clear communications from my office and from our site leaders consistent with the guidance provided post-Presidential election in 2016 and our current district policy, that students who leave class to participate in protests or other unauthorized reasons would be considered ‘unexcused.'”
He noted that he has received “a great deal of feedback from our community about the walk out.”
He noted some of this was “gratitude for district efforts to keep students safe and allow space for all voices and perspectives to be heard and respected.” Some of it was “support for student activism and a call to change our district policy to do away with unexcused absences for protests and walkouts.”
There was also “opposition to any student demonstrations during school hours and calls for punitive measures on those who take part.”
He concluded: “I am proud of our students who expressed their beliefs in a respectful and peaceful way and recognizing that an unexcused absence would result.”
There were members of the public that came to speak out against the policy. Claudia Krich said, “Unlike Sacramento students, Davis students are being punished with unexcused absences for speaking out against murder in our schools.
“I say shame on you and us.”
She responded to Maria Clayton’s comment and “said it wasn’t like a school pep rally,” arguing that many students have “zero interest in school pep rallies, but every student is in danger from the gun violence that’s pervasive in this country.
“This is not political. The school has no reason to try to be neutral. Neutral? Children are being murdered, it could easily happen here.”
Rachel Beck said that she was concerned from the start about the tone of the district communique on the walk out. She pointed out that when the district sees political speech, they make an effort to be neutral and treat all political speech as neutral.
“But I would ask, who gets to say what’s political?” she asked. “Who gets to designate an issue as untouchable? Whose issues are served by making an issue up for political debate?
“Forty-five years as a woman in this country has taught me that my life is a political issue,” she stated. She said just because there is a political debate “doesn’t mean there isn’t a moral right and wrong.
“The district can maintain that gun safety is a political issue and that you must remain neutral, but the district will not be neutral. It will be solidly on the side of the status quo. And the status quo is that our children are not safe in school and they are not safe in school because we have a gun problem in this country that we are collectively unwilling to confront honestly,” she said.
“So we have a responsibility not to remain neutral. We have a responsibility to look at the issue and decide what is in the best interest of our children and their education,” she concluded.
Cathy Haskell said that she went to the high school to support them in what they were trying to do, and they were greeted by a police person in full gear letting them know that they were not allowed to participate in that.
She said, observing this, “It just struck me that this wasn’t a walk out. These students were on campus with fully vested police officers at every possible entrance and district staff and supervisory staff all around the quad.
“It really looked like it was about keeping them there and on campus.” She added, “I wanted to shout to the students, walk out because they really never left campus.”
Cindy Pickett said that students across the nation sent a message “on no uncertain terms they indicated that they’ve had enough. Enough of the school shootings that have killed and injured, enough of feeling like their safety is secondary in the eyes of the legislature, and enough of being left out of the conversation.
“I applaud these students in Davis,” she said.
Ms. Pickett stated, “What I’m not proud of, however, is the response of the DJUSD administration.” She called the response of the administration “bureaucratic at best, and vaguely threatening at worst.”
She said that the message was safety about all, but she pointed out that if they are thinking of safety only in terms of leaving campus, “that’s missing the forest through the trees.”
“The forest is that we have a national problem and that’s what we should be focusing on,” she said. “To focus on these details I think misses the point.”
For a lot of parents, the unexcused absence was not a big deal, she said. “But bringing it up sent a message. It sent the message that hey kids… I guess we have to let you protest because it’s your right, but we wish you wouldn’t so here’s an unexcused absence.”
The board will discuss this further at their next meeting.
—David M. Greenwald reporting