Wendy Sims-Moten | Credit: Jun Starkey

“Being a Latina in an advanced learning environment has been the most discouraging experience,” said Elly, a Santa Barbara High School student, at Tuesday’s Santa Barbara Unified Board of Trustees meeting. “I’ve witnessed many incidents where the kids in my class stereotype my community and joke about being racist. I don’t say a word. I don’t feel I have the power or voice to stand up for myself.” 

Elly was one of a small group of student ambassadors for Future Leaders of America who attended the late-night meeting on March 14. The students spoke out about racial incidents and attitudes at Santa Barbara’s schools, following a draft summary report of the Anti-Blackness and Racial Climate Assessment and Analysis for the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD). 

Elly said she is in primarily white classrooms, and that her white classmates do not seem interested in talking to her. She explained that “the first time and only time” one particular classmate spoke to her was to ask her how to say something in Spanish; she said she wasn’t offended, but had hoped he would have “trusted [she] was smart enough to help him with a problem.”

“To them, I’m just the quiet Mexican girl who sits in the back of the class and fails every exam,” she continued. “However, I’m much more than that. I’m the outspoken Latina who gets the highest scores and results on the exams; the Latina who cares about her community and is willing to work to make a change. 

“This is just one example of what we minorities face in our school district. We stand in support and unification with our Black student peers at SBUSD. We ask that you consider these experiences and the victims as you address these issues and develop solutions.”

The draft report — prepared by educational consulting org Insight Education Group — demonstrates initial findings from the Racial Climate Assessment conducted between October 2022 and February 2023 to take the pulse of the learning environments being fostered at Santa Barbara schools. Insight Education was chosen out of nine organizations in August 2022 to complete the report, which is the first for the Santa Barbara school district. The board asked for the report in response to an incident that occurred months prior, in February 2022, when a student at Santa Barbara Junior High was allegedly called a racial slur and assaulted by other students, and in reaction to other concerns about the district’s racial climate brought to the board. 

A separate report on Racial Incidents in Schools presented to the board on Tuesday showed that there were six racial incidents across three schools between February 25 and March 10 this year. 

“I just want to say that since my time in Santa Barbara Unified, I’ve heard many speak about the generational trauma related to incidents involving race happening in our schools,” said Superintendent Dr. Hilda Maldonado, addressing the board. “It’s unacceptable, which is why we worked with you and others to commission this report and with the previous board as well, to really get to the root of what’s happening. But we have to be honest and transparent in order to take the actions needed to change the culture.”

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According to SBUSD’s chief operating officer Steve Venz, the assessment set out to “determine what it is like being in Santa Barbara Unified, at the schools and in the district, specifically as a Black … student or staff member” in order to inform the district’s work to combat anti-Blackness and racism in Santa Barbara schools. 

Insight’s audit team surveyed and interviewed the district’s middle and high school students, staff, and families to gain diverse perspectives and determine district trends in the experiences of students and staff of color. Included in the draft report are 10 key themes identified by focus groups that shed light on the racial climate in the district and highlight areas in need of improvement.

The first theme listed is “Normalized Racism,” which is exactly what it sounds like: Overtly racist behavior and microaggressions are seen as “normal” among students and staff who have been conditioned not to respond or deter the events due to the high volume at which they occur.

“A lot of teachers touch my hair. They say my hair is so pretty and would start touching it. It’s weird,” one unnamed student reported. “They question me [about my hair] and ask if it’s real. I have this one teacher who touches my hair in class. I told her I don’t usually let people touch my hair, and she said it’s okay for her to do it because she’s a teacher.”

The report addresses both strengths and weaknesses in the district’s approach to supporting an anti-racist, equitable environment at schools. Although they enacted a zero-tolerance policy against the use of racial slurs, many staff members surveyed indicated they do not have the adequate training, support, or clear enough protocol needed to effectively respond to incidents when they do occur to prevent them from happening again. 

Insight Education Group is still in the process of completing the Anti-Blackness and Racial Climate Report, but Venz said they plan to provide the final report with all details, data, and recommended actions to the district in April after receiving feedback and revising the draft. The initial findings, though, give a picture of the work that lies ahead of school boardmembers. 

Board president Wendy Sims-Moten acknowledged the “hard work and commitment” it will take to make real change at SBUSD schools, and said she wants the district to be a model, “not only for other school districts but for other community agencies as a part of Santa Barbara County. 

“It’s often heard or said that we are products of our environment,” Sims-Moten continued. “Well, I think we have this opportunity with this work to create the environment where we’re not seeing this, where we don’t have the same experiences that happened 50 years ago…. Because it won’t matter what class you’re sitting in; we’re also going to make sure that we’re creating a place in space for you to be who you are, no matter who you are.”


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