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JJ SAYS: The message is the thing

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I went to a school board meeting last week and a media event broke out.

Of course, considering it was the first meeting of the Petaluma City Schools Board since the graduation that will live in infamy at Petaluma High School, the one where school officials pulled the plug on graduation speaker Lulabel Seitz, silencing her mid-speech, it wasn’t surprising that a politely passionate group of parents and students, with a few educators tossed in, would confront the five board members. Of course, the media had been informed in advance of the impending gathering, and four professional-looking television cameras one-eyed the proceedings, along with a plethora of cellphone cameras.

Since Seitz’s silencing on June 2, the incidence has, in the parlance of the day, gone viral. It has been given major play by many mainstream newspapers, including USA Today, and videos of the event have been featured by broadcast news stations from Rohnert Park to New York City.

It wasn’t just the unplugging of Seitz’s microphone that had people upset, it was also the topic she was beginning to discuss — sexual harassment and assault — perhaps the hottest topic this side of the Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit. The school valedictorian was in the midst of listing adversities that the members of the Class of 2018 had to overcome on their way to graduation, a list that included the October fires, a brief teacher’s strike and cutbacks to classes when she abruptly had her amplification stifled.

What she was about to say before the world went silent was “And even learning on a campus in which some people defend perpetrators of sexual assault and silence their victims, we didn’t let that drag us down.”

Later, we learned that she was speaking of herself.

Ironically, it was the shutting down of the microphone that led to the spotlight being focused where it belongs, on the accusations of sexual misconduct and assaults on campus and how they are handled by the school administration.

Prior to graduation, all speakers had agreed to the review of their speeches by school administrators and understood that any variance would result in the turning off of the amplification. The rule makes some sense. What if, for example, a speaker went off script to advocate for segregation of the school campus?

Seitz had every right, even an obligation, to speak out on any issue, especially one as important as sexual harassment or assault. Whether she had the right to break district rules and use the graduation ceremony as a platform to express those views is another question.

What is obvious is that the decision to turn off her microphone amplified her words to a volume that was heard well beyond the Petaluma High School campus.

The issue she raised is a serious one. It is not known at this time how pervasive sexual harassment and/or assault is on Petaluma secondary school campuses. One incident is one too many. The issue needs to be addressed.

Two other female students, one in tears, told the school board last week about their own experiences. Citing privacy laws, school officials and the Petaluma Police have refused to discuss any specific incident.

That’s fine, but the community has the right to know if there is a problem on our school campuses, what is being done about it, what policies are in place and what changes need and will be made.

It isn’t enough for the school district to say, “We reported the incident to police.” If there is a problem on our school grounds something must be done about the problem. Parents have the right to not only expect, but to know with reasonable certainty that their children of whatever age are safe on our campuses.

That being said, those calling for the dismissal of Petaluma High Principal David Stirrat are so far off base as to not even be in the same ball park with rationality. He is a good administrator who has done much for Petaluma High. In cutting off Seitz’s microphone, the Petaluma High administration was simply following a Petaluma School District policy that had long been in place.

The unfortunate outcome is a black mark on what is a very good high school. The fortunate outcome is that it served Seitiz’s purpose of bringing to light a problem that needs to be discussed and rectified. Business as usual is not an option.

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@arguscourier.com)