Petaluma school officials hear stories of racism, bias at community forum

Addressing discrimination and inclusivity in local schools was the focus of a recent Petaluma Community Relations Council forum.|

Cash Martinez was so frustrated she was in tears.

The Casa Grande High School senior was reluctant to even speak at last week’s Petaluma Community Relations Council discussion at Petaluma Regional Library. But the microphone beckoned, so she took advantage of an opportunity to address a room full of school district officials and administrators on the lack of inclusivity felt by Petaluma’s minority students.

“We deserve to feel safe in our schools, and not have LGBTQ history reduced to just one page (in our textbooks). It’s not right,” Martinez said, referring to the sluggish implementation of the FAIR Education Act, a 2011 law designed to broaden the social studies curriculum. The Petaluma City School Board of Education is expected to hear a progress report on its usage later this month.

The PCRC held a panel discussion on Jan. 30 to get a sense of how Petaluma schools were executing the recommendations for addressing bias and discrimination following a 2017 survey by the Sonoma County Junior Commission on Human Rights.

The survey results, which were released in February 2018, found that 60 percent of students had witnessed or heard about verbal discrimination against racial minorities. Casa Grande junior Lucia Garay, chair of the county’s junior commission, said the results were almost 100 percent after white respondents were taken out.

The themes from the write-in portion also spotlighted concerns over the inconsistent disciplinary actions taken by administrators and educators, and the inability to adequately address incidents involving race.

“I know we all want to believe we’re diverse and accepting in Sonoma County and, in many ways, we’re more progressive than the rest of the nation, but we’re not as far along as we’d like to believe,” Garay said. “This survey is one of many events showing us we have a lot of work to do.”

Several current and former students, as well as educators and public safety officials, shared their experiences during a two-hour event that attempted to spark conversations about making Petaluma a more inclusive community, especially for its youth.

Davin Tillman, a former Casa Grande student, spoke briefly, but the few words he shared may have been the most poignant of the night.

He shared harrowing experiences facing racism and violence growing up in Petaluma. He recalled an instance when his older brother was three hours late coming home because a group of white students threatened to lynch him, so he hid in the bushes until he felt safe enough to leave.

Many attendants shuddered and gasped in reaction.

“What I learned from that is nobody is going to do anything (for you), so you have to look out for yourself and look out for your siblings,” Tillman said.

Numerous school board members, district officials and faculty were in attendance, and principals from some Petaluma elementary and secondary schools shared some of PCS assistant superintendent Matthew Harris’ time with the microphone.

Petaluma Junior High Principal Renee Semik talked about incidents that occurred on-campus after Donald Trump was elected president. Students banged on doors shouting “Trump! Trump! Trump!” and yelled “Build the wall” at Latino classmates, she said.

“Junior high is when the shift happens and you start to make your values explicit,” Semik said, “so we really try to work on that.”

Semik is one of three administrators going through a social justice certification program to help PCS perform an equity audit and uncover any other issues that need to be addressed, she said.

David Stirrat, principal of Petaluma High, called for less isolation between students that identify with different ideologies.

“That doesn’t fix anything,” he said. “We need to engage students who don’t necessarily feel the same way we do, find out what’s in their hearts, and work to educate them.”

Casa Grande Principal Eric Backman apologized to the Guacho alumni on the panel that had been hurt during their time on the east Petaluma campus, saying he was “mortified,” and wanted to ensure what they experienced won’t happen to others.

“Public education, I think more than any other institution anywhere, works tirelessly to address the ills produced by institutional racism,” Backman said. “We do come up short from time to time, but we are committed to addressing those issues that come to us.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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