Wendy Sims-Moten | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

The Santa Barbara Unified School District board opened its meeting to the public in-person for the first time in two years on April 12, and the meeting quickly devolved into chaos and aggression as several public speakers attempted to shout over board members and others engaged in personal attacks during their comments. 

On the COVID-19 front, the board announced that students or staff members in the district who have been exposed to a symptomatic person will no longer need to quarantine themselves, regardless of vaccination status. Other changes include continuing all in-school and after-school activities, and opening campus water fountains. COVID-19 testing for at least 10 percent of the district population will continue, as will random, group, and symptomatic testing, and testing student athletes and students going on overnight trips. 

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Public speakers displayed heightened emotions and outright hostility toward Boardmember Wendy Sims-Moten during discussions on COVID-19 protocols, students’ learning progress, absenteeism and suspensions, and updates on 12 racial incidents, clapping loudly after one another or engaging in shouting matches with Sims-Moten. 

During the discussion on the racial incidents, Goleta resident Greg Hammel, an unsuccessful candidate for the Goleta School Board, argued that the Just Communities anti-bias training was the reason these incidents occurred. “Just Communities made things worse by teaching the table of oppression,” Hammel said. When Sims-Moten leaned her cheek on her hand as Hammel spoke, he chided her, calling the motion disrespectful and mimicking the motion several times. Sims-Moten asked him to “just continue speaking,” but Hammel refused until Sims-Moten said she would conclude his time for commenting. After Hammel finished his comments, Sims-Moten explained the district had not renewed its contract with Just Communities this school year; Hammel then began shouting from the back of the room. Sims-Moten asked once again for members of the public to remain respectful of the board’s time. 

Another speaker, Brian Campbell, who unsuccessfully ran for Santa Barbara City Council and school board in recent years, took issue with the district contracting James Joyce III as a consultant to facilitate conversations on race with families impacted by the recent incidents. He and other speakers, including former Goleta City Council candidate Justin Shores, accused Joyce of holding no credentials and being hired by the district due to his affiliation with local Democrats. “Nice little gimmick; because he’s Black, you said ‘Let’s have him.’ Because he lost the mayoral election, let’s hire a Black guy,” Campbell said. Sims-Moten asked Campbell to keep his comments general and to refrain from using racial undertones. Campbell argued that Joyce’s program is called “Coffee with a Black Guy” and repeated the title numerous times as Sims-Moten told him to continue with his comments.

Once comments had concluded, Sims-Moten took a beat to address some of the vitriol expressed. “This country has for many years not wanted to deal with this, and if we don’t want to continue to repeat history and keep going circular, then now’s the time for us to talk,” she said. “You have your perspective, and I want to hear that, but I can’t hear it if it’s being shouted, demanded, or disrespectfully being said.” Student board member Dawson Kelly also chimed in, saying he is proud of the district’s efforts to educate students on the ways racism has impacted the way others are seen and treated in society at large. “It is our duty as a system of education to understand the difference between informing people and brainwashing them,” Kelly said. “I have seen that we are informing people on the realities instead of letting them be ignorant to what’s going on.”

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