Everything That Happens Everywhere Also Happens in Santa Barbara
When I arrived at the Montecito Journal in 2019, my partner, Tim Buckley, said to me: “This might surprise you, but everything that happens everywhere else, also happens in here.”
Tim’s apocryphal and prescient message, however, made it no less shocking for me when I learned that on Wednesday, February 16, smack in the middle of Black History Month, three Santa Barbara Junior High students began wrestling with one of their 8th grade peers, which devolved into an incident in which the three students held the boy down, called him the “n” word and a “monkey,” while a fourth student put his knee on the child’s neck, yelling “George Floyd.” I first got wind of this shocking incident from my horrified 17-year-old daughter who had learned of it through social media.
A message had been sent out by Santa Barbara Jr. High School Principal Arielle Curry regarding the incident, via ParentSquare – the district’s parent messaging portal – but only to members of the Junior High School community. The gist of the message: something ugly had happened in a classroom at the Junior High and it was being handled.
But apparently and understandably, for the victim’s parents and other concerned community members, the situation was not being handled well enough. And so they showed up at last Tuesday’s School Board meeting to express, each within the one and a half minutes of public comment they were allotted, their hurt, their anger, and their waning patience for change.
So why did it take the Santa Barbara Unified School District six days, and only after public outcry, to communicate with the greater community about this alleged hate crime and use of racial slurs inside a Santa Barbara Junior High School classroom?
As a former school board member, I am painfully aware that the rules and regulations and codes that govern public school districts are complicated. Often a response that reads as indifference, is something much more complicated. So I reached out to Santa Barbara Unified School District Superintendent Hilda Maldonado to understand what happened, her strategy for dealing with the incident, and perhaps for turning this sad moment into a learning one, not just for those directly involved, but for the greater community.
I also invited three other local education leaders to participate in the conversation: Wendy Sims-Moten, Santa Barbara Unified School District Board Member and Executive Director of First 5 Santa Barbara; Kalyan Balaven, Head of School at Dunn School and founder of the Inclusion Lab in Santa Barbara County; and Guy Walker, President of Wealth Management Strategies and Chair of The Endowment for Youth Foundation.
Some of my takeaways from this conversation are: what happened on February 16 was deeply disturbing and is not being taken lightly within the district. The ongoing work of bringing together our community over issues of racial equity and inclusion is not something that should be left just for tragic moments. Indeed, it is work that must be done every day. And granted, sometimes a thoughtful response to a shocking event can take some time to figure out. And surely, the responsibility for bringing about meaningful change cannot rest solely on the shoulders of our public-school leadership.
That being said, there is no getting around the fact that our public schools have a long-standing race problem, or perhaps you can call it an “integration” problem. The kids may all be in the same building but in many ways, they’re engaged in something akin to parallel play. This is not a new thing, and anyone with a kid in Santa Barbara’s public schools knows it.
Certain things are undeniable: Schools have the attention of our kids for more hours a day and more days a week than any other institution, organization, or entity, including the family. Maybe even more than their phones. And I think there’s a responsibility that comes with that. And so I admit to feeling disappointed that between the post George Floyd murder (almost two years ago) when the Santa Barbara School Board very publicly passed a resolution pledging to do annual anti-bias training with its staff and the incident that occurred at the Junior High just two weeks ago, the needle on bringing about greater understanding and empathy on issues of race seems to have moved very little.
So I wondered, was the staff ever trained? And if so, what were the results of that training? And how are the precepts of that training trickling down to the people that need it the most, the students?
According to Dr. Maldonado, “the anti-bias training will be taking place before the end of school year. This month we are dedicating time at each school staff meeting to discuss these incidents and identify how the adults will be looking out for students and handling any micro aggressions, hate language or violence, cyber bullying, and harassment.”
I asked Dr. Maldonado, how will they measure success?
“We will measure by students’ reporting safer school environments but ultimately by improved academic and social emotional outcomes. We know students can’t learn in any environment that feels threatening, where they feel they don’t belong or connect to adults and peers who they can trust.”
“This work is foundational to our core mission of ensuring that all students succeed,” says Dr. Maldonado.
On that, we agree. But at the moment, the very best grade I could give them is an incomplete.
The following conversation has been edited for length:
Gwyn Lurie (GL): Hilda, there’s a lot of concern out there about an incident that happened at Santa Barbara Junior High School on February 16 that had some real racial and hate implications. To the extent you are at liberty to talk about it, can you tell us what happened and where the district is right now in dealing with it?
Hilda Maldonado (HM): Yes. Thank you for the opportunity to give you an update on this. The incident at Santa Barbara Junior High School came to the attention of the principal and myself in a late evening email from the family. It came in around 9:30, almost 10 pm, and it came after the parent questioned her son on what had happened to him… Immediately, the principal responded appropriately, by setting up a meeting with the family for the next morning.
Then began the investigation with the issues around supervision, what actually happened, by talking to the boys that were involved and also bringing the families together, to discuss the issues. At the end of that investigation, there was discipline taken for the boys who had caused this harm. There are also some actions that we’re taking with classroom supervision and how that even was allowed to happen.
GL: Santa Barbara is a small town and these things get out very quickly. So, the Junior High community was informed about this incident and that it was being handled. But the rest of the community wasn’t informed until after Tuesday’s School Board meeting where a dozen or so people showed up to express their concern. Is there a reason that this communication was limited to such a small audience initially?
HM: The only reason is that, typically, we inform the community that’s closest to the issue of a case like this. Every school that has things happen usually reaches out within that nucleus. I think the learning moment, for me as a superintendent, is exactly what you just said in your question, which is how quickly things go beyond that smaller community. So, I think that’s something for us to learn from and take forward.
Sims-Moten (SM): Can I just add to that? First, certainly, it is a learning moment about, how do we make sure that we are clear on our processes and policies to the greater community? So, when something happens, people are aware of what processes are taking place and they’re clear on the facts versus the feelings about what’s going on.
In this case, as Dr. Maldonado has said, how are we going to clearly communicate in this moment? How do we learn better to clearly articulate what it is that we’re doing? But there are certain processes that we have to go through that are not necessarily understood by the broader community.
I think it’s critical, going forward, that we clearly communicate to not only our parents and our students but to everybody, to the community, about the processes that we must go through. So you don’t have the assumptions, you don’t have the emotions that are driving this. Rightful emotions, but so it’s clear what the processes are expected to be…
So, going forward, how do we handle situations that can get really inflamed really fast? You think you have it in your circle, but I guarantee you, by the time you think you have it in your circle, it’s already outside the circle.
GL: In the ParentSquare email you sent out, you talk about wanting to take this moment and address it in a broader way to the community. What does that look like? Kal, you talk a lot about inclusion and what that means. Can you talk about that in the context of an event like this?
Kalyan Balaven (KB): Sure. In any moment of disconnection or trauma, incidents like this are opportunities to build community. This incident is a piece of information. But the actions afterward, in terms of inclusion, need to be mindset, behavior, and culture, right? If those things don’t shift, then inclusion isn’t happening.
You can look at the budget. “Oh, we increased financial aid. We’re starting to look at this or we’re doing these programs.” But, how are you shifting the mindset? How are you shifting behaviors and, ultimately, the culture of a space to be more inclusive? That’s really at the heart of everything.
Guy Walker (GW): For me, it really is two major issues. One is the families that are involved. Districts will always have an interest in protecting the rights and privacies of those families. So almost instinctually, it’s almost like the only people we want involved in these conversations are the people who were directly impacted. But, because it’s a public institution, the thing that you said earlier, the word starts getting out.
Now, the conversation is really a different conversation. That different conversation is the systemic issues that are manifested, if you will, through this specific incident. Then, there’s just all this stuff, these guard rails that school districts are stuck in. Where it’s like, why can’t you just tell us what happened?
Then, you have the constituency of the board and what’s going on there. So, there’s a bunch of stuff going on. I think that protecting the families involved has got to be the priority. They need to resolve that in mediation or whatever that’s going to be.
The second piece is, we have yet again an opportunity to look at this issue. The question is, how can we as a community not get caught overly rushing the solution? I mean the bigger solution. In my role with Endowment for Youth, Black youth is part of our focus and our advocacy. And so yeah, I want to make sure that family is getting justice and so forth and so on, but I view that as a separate, distinct issue from this bigger systemic problem, that I think we need to be very thoughtful about.
I would personally counsel the school district to try to position themselves in a way that they are not rushing to come up with something to try to satisfy the broader community, but I think there have to be some definite steps. People coming to the table. I know Hilda’s expressed, and Wendy (Sims-Moten) has always been there, that this is a community conversation, and navigating and walking through that has got to be strategic, methodical, and transparent.
GL: Let’s take the framework you just set up, Guy. There are two things. There’s justice for the child and the family who have been hurt by these actions, and then there’s, how do we bring about real change in the wake of this unfortunate event?
SM: Like you said Kal, you cannot connect or build trust in the middle of a crisis and hope that it goes through… This is not a conversation for a moment in time. Because we are sitting here once again, talking about what we can do. And we have not done it obviously well enough to educate everybody, because these kids, when you look at these black and brown kids, we need to get the message, “Hey, quit fighting each other and join together and fight what in society keeps holding you down.”
As a school board we are limited to some degree, but we’re not limited in terms of bringing this community together to talk about these things, to share these limitations about what we can and cannot say so it doesn’t feel like we’re hiding something. It’s about being transparent and being vulnerable. That was so hurtful. I mean, it is not about me, but I just need to say this as a parent… That was hurtful.
Some folks in the community want to make it about their agenda, and it doesn’t allow us to keep focused on the main thing. This conversation has to be about the hurt that happened to this child. And everything else is secondary. Because if we were really working on the secondary, perhaps we wouldn’t be having these same issues… So there are going to be uncomfortable conversations. I say, go get a pillow or a seat, whatever you need to do, and sit, because we have got to get through this conversation. And we have to model what we want our students to be. And what better place to do it than in the school setting.
HM: I want to thank Kal and Wendy for that, because I think the question you’re asking, Gwyn, “What are you going to do about it?” puts all the onus on the school system to solve the bigger societal, generational issues that have existed. We are doing something about it. We are working with the families. I just had a meeting with another family here that reminded me of the pain that this is opening up for parents, who themselves as former students, have suffered. This is triggering not just what they are feeling for their own children and as a mother myself, but what we don’t want our kids to experience that some of us have experienced. And so, there’s generational pain that’s happening here, that as a school system, we need to be able to address.
The lack of skill sets that we currently have as leaders around being able to talk to these boys about, “What does this really mean and why isn’t this acceptable, and what are the feelings that you’re experiencing?” which they’re not going to process in the principal’s office. And so, I think that there are these systems and processes that we have in place, and yes, we can talk to all those kids the next day in an assembly or in our classrooms and say, “Don’t do that,” but it’s a longer arc of solutions that is about relationship-building.
There are skill sets for the adults that care for those kids to have those very difficult, painful conversations that will lead to transformation when we have those trusting relationships. They do not happen in the suspension meeting. They do not happen in the initial investigation meeting. They happen over time.
GL: I understand it’s not fair to expect the school district to fix historical, systemic, deep issues. But my question is, what are your conversations like right now in terms of engaging in not just restorative justice in this situation, but in ways to educate and bring other students into the conversation about why this matters?
KB: It kind of ties two conversations together, I think. I’m going to use the analogy of seismic activity. In California, there’s seismic activity happening right now. We’re not really feeling it, but eventually, there’s an earthquake, a tremor, or a volcanic explosion. This was a volcanic explosion, and it reminds us that we’re living amidst seismic activity. In fact, it reminds us of previous seismic activity that we’ve experienced, all the tremors we’ve experienced in our lives, but the volcano exploded, and it impacted certain families within the vicinity of the explosion.
And so the district needs to deal with the justice piece in relationship to the family, and that requires anonymity and secrecy; but restoration for everyone else experiencing it requires transparency. And so everyone else in the system that is experiencing this, and is triggered by this, also needs some learning; and so to be proactive with that is something that can’t be rushed. But that’s not asking for prolonging this indefinitely. Mindfully, let’s say, “What are the thematic triggers for us in relationship to this?” And not just the racial elements. Are there patriarchal elements woven in here? Are there elements of class woven in? Are there elements of different regions and parts of Santa Barbara? Let’s really have the conversation, but have it with the part of the community that we can’t address, that is not within our purview… the families are not in our purview, right? Parents are not in our purview. So how do we bring parents and families together in a community dialogue that helps uplift the community and helps the community to understand and see itself as connected to the broader seismic activity that we need to address as a community.
GL: To take that analogy one step further, when you have an earthquake that’s a seven or eight on the Richter scale, you then need to figure out how to rebuild in a safer way. And how to retrofit the buildings that already exist. So how do we give these kids a safer foundation so that the next time there’s an earthquake, they’re not destroyed? Because there will be other earthquakes.
SM: Yeah. It is – how do we do that? I mean, obviously, I’m at First Five and I’m about making sure in those first early years, we’re working on initiatives about being ready, including racial equity, diversity, inclusion at this early age, because that is the foundation. Because your foundation of care and concern for all should not crack during an earthquake.
There are many ways that we engage with our community, particularly our parents… and I know that we’ve gotten away from assemblies but that’s a crucial piece… Post COVID we need to reconnect, reconstruct, do everything, and then empathize.
So I would say to Hilda’s point about the boys coming together, my immediate concern was the care for the young man who this happened to. And my next concern was for those who did this. When we’re talking to those kids, having them see each other, like, what would that have been like for you to be there?
I don’t even like the word victim and perpetrator. These are junior high students, these are kids. That’s exactly what they are in terms of that and how do we use those opportunities to communicate, connect, to strengthen, all those. Take our time and don’t be selfish, like we got to run in and give you everything we know to let you know that we’re taking care of this, when in fact we need to start with care and concern and owning the part about, like I said, we understand how you feel… You can’t communicate in the middle of a crisis.
GL: Hilda, you and I spoke a year and a half ago about how this community, and the schools in particular, are too segregated, which certainly is a good breeding ground for something like this to happen. What would you like to see be borne out of this crisis?
HM: Last week, I spent much of my time meeting with high school students who gave me lots of great advice as youth will around this issue… They themselves said this is not a short-term problem. We need to go back to our core values, and not just speak of our core values, but actually live them. And they said we need to look for opportunities where we can be kinder.
I also spent time meeting with secondary principals. We talked about what they are seeing. How are we handling these issues? How do you disrupt racism when you see it in schools? We talked about that with elementary school principals as well, and with some of our safety administrators. We’ve committed to some actions beginning right now. And we talked about going back to the resolution that this board passed where they did ask us to do annual anti-bias training with all our staff. But that’s just the very tip of the iceberg, foundational conversations with all staff members in our schools about that, as well as having some in the classroom or school-wide assemblies to talk to children about what we expect and don’t tolerate in schools around these issues, with an understanding that there’s a longer arc. I’m also in conversation with folks like Guy and others to put together some Town Hall meetings where we can bring the community in.
And then there’s the fourth piece, around how we help parents. How do you talk to your kids about when they see racism in schools, anywhere from the littles all the way to the seniors; developmentally appropriate ways that we can help parents understand how to have those conversations with your kids about racism and racial slurs, cyber bullying, harassment, not just for the kids who are experiencing it, but also when other students see it, how do they interrupt those acts and become allies to students who may be experiencing this?
But this is stuff that will take time to figure out including what parents need. It’s not a recipe with three ingredients. It needs to be thought through including knowing how to deal with the pain that gets released when we have these difficult conversations. And the teachers in our district, what are they experiencing? And the counselors, all the different employees. There’s a lot to manage here and I’m going to be looking to partner with others in this space that have a lot more expertise and have the skills to do that work with me. By skills I mean the ability to hold space for others and it begins with each person having to face their personal self-awareness reflection.
GW: One thing that’s interesting to me that’s a recurring theme in this conversation, is people calling in and saying, “What are you going to do?” And I think it’s not the right question. The question is: what are we going to do? We put the school districts on an island, so to speak. And part of this dialogue is about how do we all start doing more? What are we going to do? As opposed to, what is the school district going to do?
I do think they have a leadership role they need to take… but what I would hope would happen is that there needs to be awareness in the community of this issue. Again, how you navigate, not dealing so much with the specific families because I think that’s an internal conversation, but I think the community being aware that this is an ongoing issue, that Santa Barbara Unified School District is taking a lead and partnering up with others in the community to address this much larger issue.
SM: Can I just add to that, that we have these conversations around the impetus of an incident. We have to have it in the quiet moments. In those quiet moments, I think about the equity. I’m just going to call it what it is, the equity meeting that the County had. It’s been radio silence since that point. You can’t just focus on the moment that’s driving you there. In those quiet moments, you still have to have the conversation. You still have to be engaging. And quite frankly, with the African American community being so small, the visibility always seems to be around something negative.
So my hope is that as we move forward, taking this again as a learning moment, again, to make it better, how do we better engage this community? But to really change things, I think it’s going to take losing some friends, losing some things. It’s going to take having some difficult conversations.
…I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that we do whatever we need to do as leaders in the difficult times that we have ahead of us. And to gain the trust, if you will, of the community and of our students and this family, for sure.
HM: Wendy, I really like where you’re going with this thought. Because the other thing that came up for me with this conversation as I met with different parents, is that this greater community dialogue is going to make some people uncomfortable. But to sit with and observe someone’s lived experience and pain that may be generational is what we all need to do – and it takes time and thought and it’s difficult and makes us want to rush to solutions. But if we are not willing to really look at it, then it will be hard to build the trust and the relationships that we need for this community.
KB: On the idea of reacting to issues that come up that trigger pain and trauma, processing is important. And the way we do it is important. If we construct something in the moment to react to, often times it feels like I’m punishing the other side. Or I’m punishing whatever triggered that trauma in the first place. Right? And sometimes people look at that like, “I don’t want to participate in that conversation. Why do I want to participate in a conversation that makes me feel guilty by hearing about that painful, traumatic situation?” Because most of the programs that are put forth are only about that.
GL: The thing about Santa Barbara is that it’s small enough to create real change and big enough for it to make a difference. So, Kal, I love that you call your program the Inclusion Lab. Because Santa Barbara is a perfect lab for working toward inclusion and changing the way we think about community.
GW: Well, Gwyn, I just want to thank you for initiating this conversation. And certainly, as we do this, we become more intentional about moving the ball. And I think one of the things that the district may explore, is how we further these partnerships within the district and outside of the district so that it is an ongoing dialogue.
GL: Hilda, is there anything else you want people to understand in terms of your leadership in this moment? And can you tell us, how is the child to whom this happened? Is he doing okay, and is the family okay?
HM: It would be wrong for me to characterize it as the child is doing okay. Because … while he may be thinking a certain way right now, as a 12- or 13-year-old boy, maybe when he’s 25, he will think differently about it. Unfortunately, these are things that stay with you forever.
What I would like the public to know is that I’m working with a group of leaders internally who are deeply committed to thinking differently and work differently around these issues. And that’s work that was done before I got here that needs to be elevated. And as Wendy said, it’s not something that we stop doing. It’s something that must become the fabric of how we do the work here.