A little-known community organizing network reintroduced itself to the community Wednesday by providing a second chance for Del Norters to hear from candidates for the local School Board.
True North Organizing Network, which has been in Del Norte County for more than three years, posed five questions to the candidates running for Areas 1, 2 and 5 of the Del Norte County Unified School District Board of Trustees and the County Board of Education.
The candidates running for seats on the School Board include: for Area 1, incumbent Don McArthur, a learning disability specialist with College of the Redwoods, and Milton Reilley, who retired from Pennzoil before moving to Del Norte; for Area 2, incumbent Lori Cowan, a real estate agent, and Angela Greenough, a 2005 graduate of Del Norte High School and an independent consultant; for Area 5, Requa Inn owner Jan Wortman; Jamie Forkner, formerly of Crescent City's finance department; Ronnie Sorensen, a former employee of the district's business office, and Beth Green, who retired as Crescent Elk Middle School's library manager in 2004.
Volunteers with True North's leadership team, which included teenagers not yet eligible to vote as well as members of the local Native American, Latin American and Hmong communities, spoke about why voting is important to them and the community.
"Tonight is about the community of Del Norte taking ownership of our education system," said Hilda Yepes-Conteras, who went to Del Norte schools as a youngster and whose children and grandchildren go to local schools. "Our children are this community's future parents, employees, business owners, medical professionals, taxpayers, voters and governmental leaders."
True North Network is a member of the PICO National Network, which was founded in 1972 by Father John Baumann, a Jesuit priest in Chicago. The PICO Network has organizations in 150 cities and 17 states.
According to Karen Sayer, a seven-year resident of Del Norte and another member of True North Network's leadership team, the organization developed its five questions for the School Board candidates based on conversations with more than 150 local youth and adults.
The questions covered topics including school safety, bullying and the district's discipline policies; the 2009 settlement agreement between the district and the American Civil Liberties Union; the new Local Control Funding Formula; student, parent and community involvement; and graduation and college or job readiness.
Bullying and discipline
When he opened the topic of bullying and school safety, Jeremiah Yang, a Hmong-American student at Del Norte High School, said there have been incidents where he and other students have felt unsafe due to racial slurs and stereotypes. He asked the candidates how they would hold the district accountable for reducing bullying and ensuring disciplinary practices are applied equally to allstudents.
Reilley, who has four grandchildren who have gone to Del Norte public schools, said he would identify the bully and the student being bullied and hold parents responsible for the actions of their child. He said a written record should also be kept of the incident, actions taken by school officials to address the conflict and the results they have had.
Reilley also mentioned the Kind Campaign, an organization started by two Pepperdine University students in 2009 that addresses girl-against-girl bullying.
"The five things this website recommends to stop bullying are: One, remember it will not always be this way; Two, ask for help; Three, talk to the bully or write a letter; Four, learn how to forgive; and Five, if you see bullying going on, don't be a bystander," Reilley said.
McArthur, whose background includes a master's degree in education specializing in guidance and counseling, said bullying and similar problems can affect learning and can alter neuraldevelopment.
McArthur noted that suspensions in the district have decreased from 12 percent to 6 percent, which is the state average, and said the board recently decided to increase the number of school counselors. He said that the district's decision to implement the Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports system will ensure more consistent disciplinary policies.
"Because human beings are human beings and because every student and situation is unique, there will always be some inconsistency," McArthur said. "But the goal will be to achieve fairness and equity in how youngsters are treated within and across schools."
Cowan, who has served on the board with McArthur since 2010, noted that bullying, especially cyberbullying is extremely prevalent, and trustees are constantly re-evaluating the district's bullying policies.
"I've also had to deal with it personally recently with two of my kids, both on the playground and on the Internet," she said. "I can assure you, I take it very seriously and I do believe the district does as well."
Cowan, piggybacking on her colleague's statement, said the school district is in the second year of implementing Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports. She credited the new PBIS system for reducing the district's suspension rates.
According to Superintendent Don Olson, PBIS has been implemented at the elementary school level, at Crescent Elk Middle School and at Sunset High School.
Greenough said the board should make sure that PBIS is congruent among all the schools, staff, teachers, parents and students and that it also includes Del Norte High School.
"No matter where they go, (students) need to know that the same policies that were here at Crescent Elk are the same policies that are happening at Del Norte High School or at Sunset High School and vice versa," she said.
Communication is also important when it comes to disciplinary and anti-bullying policies, Greenough said.
"If the community doesn't know these expectations as a whole it won't work," she said. "We need to make sure we're doing very well in communicating, 'These are the expectations; these are the behaviors we expect you to have at school,' and then following through with the same disciplinary process when those are not beingfollowed."
Forkner, whose daughter is a 2012 graduate of Del Norte High and whose sons are currently attending public school, said awareness is the key to ensuring school safety and reducing bullying. The district should set clear policies, communicate those policies and make all students aware of the effects of bullying, she said.
"Statistics show that 1 in 4 elementary school bullies will have an adult criminal record," Forkner said. "Awareness is the key. The bullying policy, as well as all district policies, must be enforced uniformly regardless of ethnicity or gender. The policy must state that if you do an 'x' action then you get the 'y' punishment."
Green pointed to the mantra that can be found at all district schools: "Be safe, be respectful, be responsible," saying she saw it implemented at Pine Grove Elementary School last year when she was a volunteer. Certificated and classified staff have worked together to make sure students remember and follow those rules, she said.
Sorensen pointed to School Board Policy 5131.2, which focuses on bullying, but said she hasn't been able to find administrative regulations that direct staff on applying the policy.
"I agree that the subject of bullying appears to be addressed unequally by the current administration," she said. "I have been seeing training on PBIS, and I do like the PBIS training I have been seeing. And I have been conversing with classified staff that have received that training and they like it very much. But to bring consistency in applying these rules, I would advocate the adoption of an administrative regulation directing staff on how to handle these matters and provide all necessary training to ensure fair and equal application in all schools."
Communication and transparency is also important when directing staff on applying a new policy, Sorensen said.
Wortman, who pre-recorded her answers because she was in New Zealand awaiting the birth of her third granddaughter, pointed out that the School Board has a moral and legal obligation to ensure belonging, respect, dignity and safety among all students.
If elected, Wortman said, she would advocate for new disciplinary policies and support those in place such as the Restorative Justice Program at Del Norte High School, which allows youth to focus on the needs of the victims and the offenders, who are encouraged to take responsibility for what they've done.
"Research shows the most effective bullying prevention models are where students understand that they have the power to create and attend a school where cruelty and bullying are not tolerated," she said. "Students are the most authentic voice and are capable of helping to tailor and refine prevention and intervention strategies to meet the needs of their schools."
Wortman also said the School Board should look at what has worked locally, noting that Bess Maxwell Elementary School reduced its suspension rates last year.
When addressing the five-year settlement agreement between the ACLU and the district, which was recently extended to 2017, most candidates said they want to ensure that all the stipulations are met, avoiding the need to extend the agreement further.
The ACLU's involvement in the school district dates back to 2006, when Yurok Tribal members notified the organization after the School Board decided to take away grades six, seven and eight at Margaret Keating School in Klamath. Tribal members also filed a complaint with the Federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights due to the grade reduction.
In a presentation to the School Board in May, Jory Steele, a managing attorney for the Education Equity Project of the ACLU of Northern California, said she heard allegations of harassment in schools, including racial slurs such as "savage" and "squaw" being used against students. The ACLU also noted a disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions among the district's Native American students.
Since the district entered into the settlement with the ACLU, members of the Yurok Tribe and Smith River Rancheria formed the American Indian Education Advisory Council, which is working to develop a new curriculum focusing on local Native American culture.
Third and fourth grade-curricula have been developed so far. The goal now is to implement curricula for fifth, eighth, 11th and 12th grades.
McArthur noted that the lawsuit stemmed from decisions made before he and Cowan were elected to the School Board.
"I understand the possible lingering mistrust of that community," he said. "I want to assure you that this board, the administration, and so far as I know, the entire staff, are completely supportive of the need to be culturally respectful and also to embrace our cultural diversity as something which enriches us all. We fully support curricula focused on Native American culture and language and professional development focused on reducing racial bias and creating cultural
Reilley said he would familiarize himself with the details of the settlement agreement, monitor the progress annually and make necessary changes to improve the program's success.
"This question assumes that only children of color need special attention to improve the educational outcome of the students," he said. "It is my position that all children of Del Norte County need special assistance to improve their reading, writing and math skills. This includes the Native Americans, the Hmong, the Latinos, the black and the white children."
Greenough said she wants to make sure the district is compliant with the settlement agreement by its 2017 deadline but added that she'd like to integrate curricula about the Hmong and Latino cultures that are in Del Norte as well as its history.
"We need to learn about our logging industry, our fishing industry and the different minority groups that have come through Del Norte County and have shaped this county for what it is and how it's being used," she said. "We know that sometimes history isn't pretty and sometimes it's not perfect, but it's our history and we need to learn it, not just in elementary schools, but continuing it on."
Greenough added that she didn't learn about the history of her own community when she was in high school.
"I found it accidentally on a college library bookshelf," she said. "... I had no idea about the Salmon Wars; I had no idea about how the Chinese came; I had no idea about the logging industry. Why am I learning this now outside of my community instead of inside mycommunity?"
Cowan said the School Board receives annual updates on the steps being taken to implement the new curricula stipulated by the ACLU settlement agreement. She also mentioned a recent staff training workshop led by Jennifer Eberhardt, a psychology professor at Stanford University who conducts research on racial stereotyping, prejudice and stigma.
"We'll continue to do staff professional development as well as work on curriculum to teach our children our history," she said.
Green, who is Native American with roots in Humboldt County, said the district has had a cultural awareness program for a long time and had the books and materials housed in her library at Crescent Elk since 1969.
"It was used as an option to teach at that time," she said. "Now the information has been re-done with lots of knowledge by our local long-time educators and resource personnel from the elders of the tribes to implement the units as class lessons in six grade levels. I think this is great."
If elected, Sorensen said one of her initial steps would be to understand what the agreement requires, what steps administrative staff and the Board have taken to meet those requirements and what remains to be implemented.
"If elected I would seek regular updates concerning satisfying the objectives, terms and conditions of the settlement agreement so that another extension of time is not required," she said. "For me, the bottom line is ensuring the students of today have the benefits and best opportunity to be successful in their education path. This means the change needs to happen now to benefit the current students and not three years from now."
Wortman, who said "it's not OK" for certain groups to be underperforming, noted that the ACLU settlement agreement is one chapter in a larger history of inequality at Del Norte schools.
"Statistically my Native American grandchildren are much less likely to graduate from high school than other students, and if they do graduate, there's an even smaller chance they will have the required classes to attend a university. This is not OK," she said. "I see (this) as an opportunity for the School Board to sharpen its focus and ensure that all students are achieving."
Wortman said she's excited to support plans by the district to reduce bias and create more equality among Del Norte's students. She added that her candidacy is endorsed by the Yurok and Smith River Rancheria tribal councils.
Forkner noted that while curricula for grades three through five have been developed, more work needs to be done. Evaluating district compliance with the settlement agreement is a necessity, she said, as is annual staff training on cultural competence and training.
Forkner also noted that the ACLU settlement agreement was intended to resolve high rates of disparate discipline among students of color, especially Native Americans.
"As I stated previously, we need to have set policies so there is no room for interpretation," she said. "We have got to be consistent with discipline. Regardless of race, color or gender, if a student is doing an action that requires discipline then they should be reprimanded according to this policy. I will absolutely not tolerate persons of different nationality receiving harsher or reduced punishment (than) someone doing the same thing. Everyone should be treated equally."
When bringing the forum to a close, Patricia Black, another member of True North's leadership team, asked each candidate if they would be willing to meet with True North members within 60 days of taking office to follow up on the issues that were discussed. Each answered yes.
For more information about the True North Organizing Network, visitwww.facebook.com/TrueNorthOrganizing, or call Kelly Boehms at 707-502-4046.
Reach Jessica Cejnar at email@example.com.