Embattled San Marcos High School Principal Ed Behrens — set to speak Tuesday evening during a crowded Board of Education meeting that would decide his fate — received a hooting and hollering standing ovation before he even opened his mouth. From the day he was hired six years ago, he began, “My passion and vision was to create the very best high school.” From there he verbalized a glowing checklist of accomplishments — from embedded intervention programs to help struggling students to graduation rates that climbed as dropout numbers decreased — as his massive crowd of supporters responded with sustained bursts of applause. But the seemingly impervious force field of adoration, backed by a petition of support bearing 2,400 signatures, wasn’t enough to protect Behrens from a board vote of no confidence after nearly three hours of closed-door deliberation. Voting 4 to 1, with Laura Capps casting the sole “nay,” boardmembers approved Santa Barbara Unified School District’s recommendation that at the end of this school year, Principal Behrens be reassigned to a teaching position. Roars of protest erupted from the crowd. “You should be ashamed of yourselves!” others yelled at the board majority. Behrens quickly made for an exit.
The heated meeting, held at Santa Barbara Junior High School’s Marjorie Luke Theatre to accommodate more than 450 concerned San Marcos parents, students, and teachers, unfolded in the wake of a run of violent incidents during which Behrens’s leadership has been mostly praised — but also called into question. In January, a private chat-room video surfaced featuring a male San Marcos freshman describing how to kill female students with a rifle and bayonet, accompanied by a long list of female and gay male students that ought to be killed. Parents and students familiar with the video and list alleged that as many as 10 boys were involved.
Bound by privacy laws protecting minors, school administrators and law-enforcement officials will not name the suspects nor reveal to parents whether the boys have been allowed to return to classes, adding to tensions and uncertainties on campus and off. While many parents claimed that Behrens and the district as a whole failed to promptly send out widespread alerts as the seriousness of the incident took shape, others have claimed, according to one speaker Tuesday night, “He did the best he could with the resources he had, and those resources were not enough.” In that respect, supporters reiterated that they believe the district was throwing Behrens under the bus instead of admitting its own shortcomings in how to deal with cyber threats.
The district does not comment on personnel matters, but in a recent statement, it said generally that any decision “takes into account a number of different factors, including performance evaluations, with a view towards making decisions to retain or release administrators from their current position based upon the best interests of students.”
Though widely outnumbered, a group of speakers Tuesday evening did call for fresh leadership at the high school, echoing language of an active petition at Change.org. “We demand new leadership … that is transparent and culturally proficient,” the petition reads. “We demand that Ethnic Studies be a graduation requirement for all high schools at Santa Barbara Unified School District, [and we] demand that no residential security officers be assigned at any of the SBUSD schools as it has been proven to negatively affect culturally diverse students and staff.”
On March 7, as divided parent and student groups solidified in advance of Tuesday’s board meeting, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office deputies were called to campus to investigate threatening graffiti found on a bathroom stall in the girls’ locker room. The message, in black permanent marker, threatened a school shooting on March 9, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Three more pieces of disturbing graffiti were discovered on March 9, in the boys’ locker room, according to Public Information Officer Kelly Hoover, who added that the words threatened violence but were unrelated to the March 7 discovery.
On Monday, the campus was placed on lockdown when several students heard a small explosion.
“It happened right at the end of lunch,” said junior Jaiden Feldman. “I really didn’t register the sound, but I saw the looks on people’s faces, and people just scattered.” Feldman added that she felt relieved to see fellow students start to laugh, but “none of us knew what was going on. A lot of us were nervous, but I didn’t think there was a shooter.” Deputies with the Sheriff’s Office responded to “a call of shots heard,” said Hoover.
“Right before the school called the lockdown, a cop car came speeding into the parking lot next to my classroom,” Feldman said. “That made everybody nervous. I texted my parents that I was in a lockdown but I didn’t think it was serious. But just in case, I told them, ‘I love you guys.’”
Hoover said deputies eventually learned that the sound came from an exploding firecracker.