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Alumni of Petaluma’s St. Vincent High School criticize firing of Black staff members

St. Vincent de Paul High School is mired in growing backlash from alumni and community members after two Black staff members were let go mid-June, with nearly 215 signing an open letter condemning the move as racially discriminatory and prompting an organized protest Sunday.

The letter alleges Dean of Counseling Joanna Paun and Physical Education Teacher Kinyatta Reynolds were dismissed from their positions one week after attempting to discuss institutional racism and potential solutions with school leadership.

Paun and Reynolds are now looking to pursue legal action against the private Catholic school, claiming racial discrimination, harassment and retaliation, according to the pair’s lawyers Elizabeth Riles and Rebecca G. Kagin, who declined to offer any further information.

The 200-student Roman Catholic high school teaches grades 9 through 12. The church’s nearby elementary school, which bears the same name, offers kindergarten through 8th grade.

The roughly 600-word open letter dated July 20 claims the school has historically undermined diversity and inclusion efforts on campus and has enabled an “adverse environment” for students and faculty of color.

The letter also calls for greater transparency of the school’s budget, its hiring practices, advertising and of the student body’s diversity. Its 212 signatories also demand mental health counseling, diversity and inclusion efforts be “restored and revitalized,” along with a review of all leadership at the school.

The controversy comes just three weeks after a group of 379 former students, staff and parents signed a July 8 open letter excoriating principal Patrick Daly for participating in a national forum on school reopening with President Donald Trump at the White House July 7.

Daly deferred all questions last week to the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church, Father Bill Donahue, who released a public statement Saturday addressing the recent controversies and several allegations described in the open letters.

In the statement, Donahue and Daly defended the school’s participation in the White House forum as a non-political sharing of “knowledge and experience” over the reopening of schools. The decision to terminate four positions, including those held by Paun and Reynolds, was made purely on budgetary lines, they wrote.

“The four affected employees — all of whom were hired by the current administration — were not singled out due to race or any other form of invidious discrimination,” the statement said.

Aidan Lynch, who graduated from the school in 2013, penned both open letters alongside three alums. Lynch said they wanted to spark more discussion among the school’s alumni about the school’s environment and creating more opportunities for diversity and inclusion.

The Sunday protest will begin at 1 p.m. in front of Saint Vincent de Paul High School, and will lead a one-mile march to the church, where recent graduates, alumni and former faculty will issue statements.

“We do not want the school to close, we want things to turn around,” Lynch said. “We want leadership to be more inclusive and reflective of the community, and one that will grow.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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