Palo Alto school board members agreed Tuesday night with community members' pleas that they must face head on racism and discrimination that has reportedly occurred in the school district in response to the controversial renaming of two middle schools earlier this year.
Parents and others described a community sharply divided along racial lines, more overtly so after a proposal to rename a school after Fred Yamamoto, a Japanese-American Palo Altan who fought and died in World War II. The local Chinese immigrant community rallied against naming a public school after a man who shared a last name with unrelated Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and to whom local parents attribute WWII war crimes against the Chinese. (The board ultimately decided to rename the schools after other Palo Altans.)
On Tuesday, parents concerned about increasing racism talked about students openly denigrating students of Japanese descent in classrooms. Five district families who share the Yamamoto surname have reported feeling personally attacked by the renaming debate.
As a result, a group of parents concerned about the current climate in the Palo Alto school district drafted a resolution calling for the formation of a standing district committee that would review and potentially make recommendations on issues of inclusion, diversity and equity.
Sally Horna, a legal fellow for the San Francisco Bay Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the board that her organization is "concerned about the hostility that has emerged against (the) Japanese-American community in Palo Alto as a result of the school renaming process" and urged them to support the parents' resolution.
The board Tuesday unanimously directed staff to return with recommendations for actions the district can take to address the racist behavior in a concrete way. They urged more specificity in the resolution, however, to give it teeth and to avoid overlap with district work already underway to address these issues.
"I support us taking a stand and saying, 'This is not who we are and this is not who we want to be,'" board member Terry Godfrey said.
Of 15 speakers, only one opposed the resolution. Parent and school board candidate Kathy Jordan urged the board to take a different course of action rather than "compound a wound" in the community. Some language in the parents' resolution could be considered "inflammatory," she said, in reference to a statement hearkening to the kind of thinking that led to the internment of Japanese American citizens during WWII. It was an assertion board President Ken Dauber later echoed .
Debra Cen, co-founder of the Palo Alto Chinese Parents' Club, wrote in an email to the Weekly that she disagreed with what she called putting "political issue(s) into the school agenda."
"We hope the school board will concentrate on helping all students to succeed" rather than responding to "the most vocal group," she wrote.
For many in the room Tuesday night, racism is a deep-seated issue that goes beyond the renaming debate. Board member Melissa Baten Caswell referenced anti-semitic graffiti found in Palo Alto last year and anecdotes of African-American students who have experienced racism at school. Lars Johnsson, the parent who led the initial effort to rename Jordan and Terman middle schools, said underlying racism exists "at all levels" and affects "all different groups" in the district.
"This is not about Fred Yamamoto," Baten Caswell said. "This is about how do we get people to respect each other."
Rosemary McGuire, a longtime African-American Palo Alto resident and the parent of five graduates of the school district, said she wouldn't want her children to attend Palo Alto schools today.
"Racism here is like the ocean," she said. "We live in it."
She urged the board to not shy away from taking action on a thorny, difficult issue.
"You have a job to do," she said. "Do not shirk. It's OK to be uncomfortable."
Board members agreed that the board president and vice president would work on a revised resolution and expect staff to return with recommendations at the final board meeting of the school year on June 19.
In other business Tuesday, the board unanimously approved a 1 percent raise and 1 percent bonus for the district's non-represented management employees.
The board also appointed Anne Brown, the former principal of Barron Park Elementary School who has been leading the human-resources department on an interim basis this year, as the new chief academic officer of elementary education. The board approved a one-year contract for Brown, who will replace retiring Chief Academic Officer of Elementary Education Barbara Harris.
Eric Goddard, a former longtime Palo Alto Unified elementary school principal and administrator who served as the interim Barron Park principal this year, will become the school's next permanent principal.