Teens, Adults Confront School District with Anti-Racism Demands and Ethnic Studies Classes

Santa Barbara Unified To Require Ethnic Studies This Fall, Black Lives Matter Teens Speak Up

Thousands rallied against police brutality on black people and people of color at Stearns Wharf on Sunday, June 7. The protest was led by high school students, including incoming San Marcos senior Talia Hamilton, who spoke at the Santa Barbara Unified School District board meeting on Tuesday, June 9. | Credit: Delaney Smith

The push for mandatory ethnic studies courses in high school — a controversial topic in the Santa Barbara Unified School District in recent years — collided head-on with the Black Lives Matter movement Tuesday night following a protest led by student organizers on Sunday, who issued six demands to the district, including mandatory implementation of ethnic studies.

“These days, Instagram is the new textbook, except we’re learning about systemic racism that we haven’t learned in school,” said Roxana Corona, a college student who went through S.B. Unified. “The fact that I learned about this on social media instead of school says a lot about our education system.

“Why is it that all that was ingrained in my head is ‘Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492?’”

Mandatory ethnic studies courses have been in the works since 2018. This fall, the incoming class of 2024 will be the first students to take ethnic studies courses as a requirement for graduation. The two new pilot classes, English 9 with an emphasis on Ethnic and Social Justice Studies and the elective Ethnic and Social Justice Studies, will be offered in addition to Mexican-American Literature and Chicano Studies. 

The timing of the students’ demands to dismantle racism in schools coincided with the Tuesday board report on ethnic studies courses, a report that was already scheduled prior to the student-led protest.

But timing was only perfect in regard to their demand to implement ethnic studies courses. Due to the Brown Act, a state law that requires the board’s agenda to be set 72 hours in advance of scheduled meetings, the board was unable to address the other five demands made by the students two days earlier. 

Board President Laura Capps made it clear that their demands would be addressed at the next meeting, and the board as a whole voiced strong support of the students, but there was still confusion from public commenters, many of whom perceived the lack of response by the board as an insult to people of color and the young protestors demanding change. 

The board was also set to adopt a declaration that February 2-5 is “Black Lives Matter in School Week,” which was largely perceived as an insult to the student protestors by most of the nearly 90 people who spoke on the topic.

“The community wants to hear now where the board stands on these issues,” said Dylan Griffith. “The resolution regarding Black Lives Matter in schools is important and long overdue, yet it also doesn’t reflect the demands of the black students that the board strives to value. I support all the demands by black students today as presented today by Talia.”

Talia Hamilton, an incoming senior at San Marcos High School and one of the main organizers of Sunday’s peaceful protest against police brutality that drew thousands, spoke at the beginning of the meeting to iterate her group’s demands of the district. 

“A lot of the marches that have been held were organized by adults, and it’s awesome that the older generation cares. But, of course, we are the rising generation,” Hamilton said. “I think it’s really important to have our words be heard because a lot of the time we hear, “You’re just a kid, you can’t really do anything.’ We wanted to prove that we can.”

Photo: Delaney SmithSan Marcos High School sophomore Shakir Ahmad (left) delivers six demands to Frann Wageneck (second from front), the assistant superintendent of Student Services, and district high school principals on either side on Sunday, June 7.

Hamilton’s and her group’s remaining five demands to the district include:

  • Allocate funds to rehabilitation and mental-health services for at-risk youth as an alternative to juvenile hall and probation,
  • Publicly condemn the school-to-prison pipeline,  
  • Defund any contracts it has with the Sheriff’s Office or the Santa Barbara Police Department,
  • Adopt a resolution declaring racism as a public-health emergency, and allocate resources to implement restorative justice practices to mitigate hate crimes, and
  • Implement equitable hiring practices, and recruit culturally competent teachers of color to teach ethnic studies courses.

The demands have sparked deeper community engagement with the school board — a decision-making body with three of its five current members appointed without an election because no one else ran against them. Capps commented that more than 250 members of the public were participating in the online board meeting during the Black Lives Matter and ethnic studies discussions, which went hours into the night. 

“As a parent it was really disappointing to hear that you guys are proposing a Black Lives Matter in Schools Week in a month that already has 28 days dedicated to black history,” said Amara Teague, adding that as a black woman who grew up in Santa Barbara, she and her family had to endure the very issues the young student leaders are demanding to end. 

“That is ridiculous and truly insulting,” Teague continued. “They want action. They want change. I urge you to reexamine the requests they put forth to you.”

The resolution had been revised last minute in an attempt to convey the district’s acceptance of the student’s demands without breaking the Brown Act, but the board ultimately decided not to vote on it so it can be revised again to reflect the students’ and community’s wishes. 

Though nearly all who spoke were supportive of the ethnic studies courses — most enthusiastically so — there were dissenters, too.

“I was one of a number of people who wanted the district to be inclusive and equitable,” said Sheridan Rosenberg, a frequent school board speaker and parent of a student in the district. She said that she asked to be a part of the committee that assembled the ethnic studies curriculum but was “shut out” from participating.

“These meetings were obviously held behind closed doors with no input, and now we have a semi-finished product,” Rosenberg said. “And I did glance at the reading list, especially the textbook you want to use. I want to focus on Howard Zinn’s book. This is a book that has been widely discredited by numerous scholars.”

Theresa Montaño, a professor of Chicana/Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge, helped design the curriculum and gave a portion of the ethnic studies presentation. She said that a community forum will be scheduled soon for the public to get a closer look at the curriculum and give feedback.

“I just want to say that you have been heard,” said Frann Wageneck, assistant superintendent of Student Services, to the students and adult supporters alike. Wageneck met the student protestors outside the district office on Sunday, and she accepted and delivered their demands to the school board. “As I said on Sunday, I’m trying to practice keeping my eyes and ears open and my mouth a little more shut.”

Wageneck and the boardmembers apologized that the other demands could not be directly addressed at the meeting and for the Black Lives Matter resolution that many called “tone deaf.”

“As adults, we have a lot to learn from our youth,” Wageneck continued. “I learned a lot, both from the youth and the adults who spoke. I know what our intentions were. However, the impact was different, and it’s the impact that matters.”

The board reconvenes Tuesday, June 23 at 6:30 p.m.

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