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 statements made during the renaming debate.
As a result, a group of current and past district parents 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. The group includes Michelle Higgins, Rika Yamamoto, Eimi Okano (also one of the founders of nonprofit Asian Americans for Community Involvement), Satomi Okazaki and Kim Shimazaki. Steven Lee, who serves on the city's Human Relations Commission, also has 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 resolution stated. "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."
As proposed, the standing committee 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 Asian Americans for Community Involvement, the Japanese American Citizens League and the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission.
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 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 warning of the kind of thinking that led to the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. 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.
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