In the wake of divisive debate over a proposal to rename a Palo Alto middle school after a Japanese-American alumnus who shared a last name with an unrelated Japanese admiral, the school board will discuss this week a resolution affirming its commitment to combating racism in the district's schools.
A group of current and past district parents -- Michelle Higgins, Rika Yamamoto, Eimi Okano (also one of the founders of nonprofit Asian Americans for Community Involvement), Satomi Okazaki and Kim Shimazaki -- proposed a resolution to the school board in April and requested it be placed on the board's agenda for discussion. Steven Lee, who serves on the city's Human Relations Commission, has also been involved in the effort.
The resolution was signed by more than 150 supporters, including representatives from local and national civil-rights organizations. In a statement at the April 24 board meeting, the parents described a community "left with discord rather than harmony" and urged the board to not be "bystanders rather than upstanders in the face of behavior and attitudes that we would not tolerate if they occurred on our school campuses."
"The tone of our discourse must be elevated to a more constructive and civil discussion," the statement reads. "We ask that the board not remain silent, and call on our greater PAUSD community to actively embrace and model the American values of tolerance, compassion, empathy and inclusion."
The board voted unanimously in March to rename Jordan and Terman middle schools, the former after African-American technologist Frank Greene, Jr. and the latter after Ellen Fletcher, a Holocaust survivor and former city councilwoman. A groundswell of community support for naming one of the schools after Palo Alto High School graduate Fred Yamamoto, who was held at a Japanese internment camp and died in battle during World War II, was met with intense opposition by members of Palo Alto's Chinese community. They said they associated the surname with Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and to whom local parents attribute WWII war crimes against the Chinese.
The debate quickly became heated, with allegations of racism and marginalization lodged by each side.
The resolution "notes with concern" that some families in Palo Alto with the surname Yamamoto, including one of the co-authors, experienced "hostility and fears" and Japanese families, "alienation," after the renaming process.
"Conflating the American name Fred Yamamoto with the name of an unrelated Japanese Imperial admiral is the kind of thinking that led to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and serves as a cautionary tale to everyone in our multi-cultural community," the resolution states.
The resolution also commends Fred Yamamoto's "brave sacrifice" during World War II and states that his is "an American name deserving of respect and admiration."
The resolution asks the board to form a representative, standing district committee "whose mission will be to promote and foster values and attitudes necessary for our multicultural community to thrive in accordance with democratic values."
The group would organize forums and evaluate district policies, practices and programs "as they relate to issues around human rights, diversity and inclusion and recommend changes as necessary." The committee would work with other relevant community organizations, including nonprofit Asian Americans for Community Involvement, the Japanese American Citizens League and the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission.
Higgins wrote in an email that "this is not simply a Japanese-American issue, but a matter that should be of grave concern to all in our community who believe that nobody should be treated in any way as 'less than' because of their name, skin color or family heritage."
The effort to rename the two middle schools was sparked in 2015 by the discovery that their namesakes, David Starr Jordan and Lewis Terman, were leaders in the eugenics movement.
Following the school board vote this spring, community members and Yamamoto's family launched a scholarship fund in Fred Yamamoto's honor and awarded funds this month to graduating Paly senior Ricardo Lombera, president of the school's Latinos Unidos club and the first in his family to attend college. The group also planned to explore the possibility of naming a place in Palo Alto, such as a park or building, after Fred Yamamoto.
In other business Tuesday, the board will take action on two election-related proposals: one to place a bond measure on the November ballot and a separate ballot measure that would impose term limits on school board members.
The board will also discuss the implementation of new social-emotional learning curriculum; the district’s proposed 2018-19 budget; the district’s 2018 Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP); salary increases for the district's management group; and initial negotiating proposals with the teachers union, among other items.
The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at 25 Churchill Ave., Palo Alto. View the agenda here.