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Firing of Black staff members sparks protest against Petaluma’s St. Vincent High School

Petaluma’s private Catholic high school, already under fire from some alumni and community members for participating in a school reopening forum with President Donald Trump last month, is at the center of a growing controversy over its decision to terminate the employment of its only two Black staff members.

Approximately 150 protesters converged outside St. Vincent de Paul High School Sunday afternoon in a demonstration of support for two Black women — Joanna Paun, former dean of counseling, and Kinyatta Reynolds, who taught physical education — dismissed by the school.

A caravan of a dozen cars painted with Black Lives Matter messages shepherded the protesters from the school to the steps of St. Vincent de Paul Church in downtown Petaluma, honking in rhythm to the group’s “Black teachers matter” chant.

They were met by about 60 counter-protesters, some wielding signs proclaiming support for St. Vincent de Paul High School and its principal, Patrick Daly. It marked the first Black Lives Matter protest in Petaluma to see organized pushback from people who do not support the national movement, which calls for an end to police brutality and systemic racism.

Daly and the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church, Father William Donahue, issued a statement Saturday asserting the school’s participation in the July 7 White House event was not political or an expression of support for “any national figure or party.” But Trump re-election flags hoisted by counter-protesters Sunday at times outnumbered pro-Daly signs, with several combining the two messages on single slabs of posterboard.

Paun, who also serves on the Petaluma City School District Board of Education, was stunned by the response.

“We’re just really grateful for the community support. I did not expect this many people,” she said. “I am shocked. There’s been a dozen Black Lives Matter protests in Petaluma and not a single one has been opposed in this way, and I just ask — why?”

With the caravans continuously circling the block, demonstrators and counter-protesters took up opposite ends of the property, with a line of American and Trump flags on the church’s front steps and a circle of protesters gathered at the opposite patch of grass. Volatile arguments erupted throughout the three hour-long protest and the Petaluma Police Department issued a statement Monday asking for more information about allegations of a physical altercation.

Santa Rosa resident Kathy Senzell, who carried a large “Women for Trump” flag, argued with several protesters.

“It was posted all over Facebook that this would be a Black Lives Matter thing, so that’s why these flags came out. If they’re going to be political, then we’re going to be political right back,” Senzell said. “It’s only fair. All is fair in love and war, so there you go.”

Sunday’s protest thrust simmering dissension within the school community squarely into the public eye.

Nearly 215 St. Vincent de Paul alumni and community members signed an open letter July 20 accusing the school of racial discrimination by terminating the employment of Paun and Reynolds in mid-June. The letter alleges the two women 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 lawyers Elizabeth Riles and Rebecca G. Kagin, who are representing the two women. They 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 classes.

The roughly 600-word open letter 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 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 an open letter excoriating Daly for joining Trump at the White House for a national forum on reopening schools.

Daly deferred all questions last week to Donahue, who released a joint 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 the positions of Paun and Reynolds, along with two other staffers, 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.

“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.”

This is a continuing story, check back later for more.

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

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