San Dieguito students lead protest for equity: ‘No kid deserves to feel uncomfortable at school’

San Dieguito Union High School District students protest at the district office on April 11.
(Luke Harold)

A group of students protested in front of the San Dieguito Union High School District office on April 11 for their voices and experiences to be heard about issues with discrimination they face at school. In their third demonstration since last August, protestors held signs that read messages such as “No one is free when others are oppressed” and “All students deserve to feel safe”.

The students are asking for diversity training for board members, administration and staff; a more diverse curriculum; and establishing a districtwide equity committee that includes BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students, teachers and representatives from advocacy organizations to have honest discussions on diversity and inclusion.

“They just really need to listen to us,” said Tea Wagstaff, a sophomore at San Dieguito Academy and president of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club. “When we say we have a problem, we need someone to listen to us and actually make changes.”

Recently students from San Dieguito and La Costa Canyon High School have banded together to form the new San Dieguito Union Equity Coalition. While the group started originally with just students, members of the teacher group Good Humans also joined in to provide support for their efforts.

La Costa Canyon teacher Lauren Monahan started Good Humans as a forum for teachers to discuss ways to create a more welcoming and accepting environment for all students. As the district prepares for more students to return to schools, they want to make sure it is a safe place that they are returning to.

“Many of my BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students have disproportionately opted to stay home. After watching for years, I can see why,” Monahan said. “I’ve tried to change the culture on campus to make it safe for them, and, like others, even found and paid for my own training but it feels like the culture is too heavy to shift without assistance from the top.

“We have to do better by these kids. We need to start by simply making space to listen to them and then put our money where our mouth is and get some authentic systemic changes in place to protect all kiddos.”

Speaking with members of the Equity Coalition, students said they have experienced acts of racism, homophobia, xenophobia and ableism. They have had racial and gay slurs used against them with kids hiding behind using the hateful words as “a joke” and then experiencing no consequences for their actions.

The students cannot comprehend the anti-semitism they have witnessed, such as swastikas graffitied on campus and words that students use on social media, attempting to be “edgy”.

After a summer of activism following the death of George Floyd, a group of students first protested in August 2020 demanding that the school board address racial inequities and diversity. Students made it onto a board agenda in January to talk about their efforts with Diversify our Narrative (DON)— encouraging the district to incorporate more texts by BIPOC authors in English and literature courses and to have more classroom discussions on identity bias and race. The DON students organized a training workshop that 100 SDUHSD teachers participated in (Encinitas 4 Equality also crowdfunded for another diversity training).

Without hearing follow-up from the district after the January meeting, students held a press conference on March 17 before protesting again on April 11.

Joy Ruppert, a sophomore and youth co-leader for Encinitas 4 Equality, helped organize the August protest and has been trying to work with the district since the summer.

“It absolutely is exhausting, just asking for simple things to make students feel safe at school,” Joy said. “It shouldn’t take an entire year and protests for our voices to be heard.”

Through their activism, the students have found each other across school sites. The San Dieguito chapter of DON linked up with schools’ No Place for Hate Clubs, SDA’s Multicultural Anti-Racism Coalition and CCA’s Raven Diversity Network. The Equity Coalition group talks every week about problems they are having at school.

At schools where there is not a lot of diversity, students said the concerns of BIPOC students and staff seem to get “pushed away”.

“Black voices weren’t being heard at LCC. It’s a very uncomfortable environment day in and day out. It’s not something we should have on our minds during the school day,” said LCC senior Bereket Denslow. “Many of the people at LCC don’t realize how the things they say and do greatly affect Black students and people of color.”

This year, Bereket wanted to start a Black Student Union with her sister Genet, a sophomore. The girls said that the Black Student Union was not considered inclusive enough but they were allowed to start a Racial Equity Club. With the club, they are pushing for social justice, helping to promote education and understanding among their classmates.

“I feel like there’s a huge disconnect between BIPOC students, LGBTQ students and the rest of the campus,” Genet said. She said she does not feel welcomed, she does not feel seen and she does not feel included in the school culture. “I feel very lonely and isolated.”

In the past when an incident has happened at school, Tea said the school tends to say all the right things at first, like: “This is not us”. There are some “performative” classroom discussions or they have pizza or play a game together and be nice to each other for a few days. But often times, the students say things just go back to the way they were.

“It seems like a box is checked and then they don’t do anything else, they don’t try to understand or educate why it happened and why it is not ok and how to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” said one student who asked to remain anonymous. “They are Band-aid solutions that just don’t work.”

Following the March 17 press conference, students said they were sad to hear that some parents were upset about the negative attention, worrying that it was making the school look bad or lowering its ranking. They felt the real concern should be the wellbeing of all students: “No kid should feel uncomfortable at school.”

In a statement, the San Dieguito Union High School District said they take all reported allegations of racism, bullying, sexual assault and harassment very seriously and that they strive to make sure all students feel safe and included on campuses.

“Our board of trustees is very committed to both nondiscrimination and working to achieve equity,” SDUHSD said, referencing two board policies that address the topic, one on Nondiscrimination in District Programs and Activities (0410) and one on Equity (0415).

The board policy on equity, approved last September, includes strategies to promote equity in district programs such as adopting curriculum and instructional materials that accurately reflect the diversity among student groups, building a positive school climate, promoting the employment and retention of a diverse staff and providing district staff with ongoing professional learning on culturally responsive instructional practices.

A protestor in front of the San Dieguito district office.
(Luke Harold)

The district has taken some steps toward meeting some of those strategies. At the March 18 meeting, the board approved a $15,000 contract with the San Diego County Office of Education’s Equity Department to provide preparation, implementation and coaching, as well as 10 professional learning sessions and pre and post briefings with district leadership, focused on teaching a systemic approach to educational equity. The agreement was under the consent calendar and there was no board discussion of the item.

Additionally, next year the district said it plans to pilot an ethnic studies course at San Dieguito Academy.

In the statement, the district said the leadership team is working to get a better understanding of what students are experiencing through surveys, Thought Exchanges and multiple Student Summits held throughout the year.

“We have addressed with (students), in this safe environment, nondiscrimination, racism, equity and inclusion. We will continue to do so moving forward,” SDUHSD said. “The superintendent has personally met with student leaders from multiple school sites, along with representatives from the board of trustees, to hear and understand their concerns.”

“Our board has directed staff to diligently investigate all reports of racism or discrimination,” the statement continued. “This may result in confidential disciplinary action for a student(s), although our overall approach though is to educate those involved if there is an incident so we can help them learn.”

The teachers and students in the Equity Coalition believe that the issues in the district are systemic, more than any one incident. Students said that they have stopped reporting incidents because it “doesn’t do anything”.

“The culture doesn’t change,” said student Izzy Enfinger, who has spoken up for students with disabilities.

At times, the students feel like they are tattling—Joy said that she has recognized that she is losing friends because she calls people out on their actions. The students also said it can be scary to speak up, that they aren’t always sure they are going to be supported so they pick their battles.

Following the students’ March and April demonstrations, equity-related topics have not been added to the board’s agenda for discussion. LCC teacher Haley MacKenzie said she would like to see the district and board really address the issues affecting marginalized groups and to be more transparent and collaborative about their equity plans and their anti-discrimination policies. Without oversight or enforcement, she said the policies won’t protect the most vulnerable students.

“The district needs to stop silencing BIPOC and LGBTQ+ advocates…and start engaging in the deep and ongoing work, reflection, education and authentic action that a culture shift of this magnitude requires,” MacKenzie said. “We know we have incredible and outspoken and empowered students, to not listen to them is a slap in the face. The district should take advantage of these student leaders and how much they have to give.”