Student Inclusivity Task Force will discuss controversial issues on campus prior to them becoming cultural problems
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – A group of students tasked with finding solutions to sensitive issues before they become cultural problems on campus will hold its first meeting this month.
Dr. Todd Oto, superintendent of Visalia Unified School District, said the Student Inclusivity Task Force will have a “process meeting” to see if the group of students can work together constructively and to identify any groups of students who may not be represented, but no official date had been set as of press time.
“We want this group to talk about things in advance of something happening,” Oto said. “They don’t all have to agree but they have to be able to understand someone else’s perspective.”
Oto said the district sent an invitation to serve on the task force to every sophomore and junior enrolled at all of its high schools, or about 4,000 students, two weeks ago. The district received 81 responses which were then narrowed to 25 students with the help of a collective of student leadership groups known as the United Students Associated of Visalia. Once selected, the students will serve two-year terms before cycling off the committee as they graduate. The student group will have a neutral moderator, meaning it will not be someone from within the school district, to keep the conversations focused on solutions and not finger pointing.
“They helped us ensure that this was a diverse group of students,” Oto said. “We want this group to be as diverse as it can be.”
Oto said the district will work over the summer to assemble a group of 15 community members to serve on its Common Ground Committee. “First we find out what kids think, then we get the adult’s response, there’s a little back and forth, and then the adult group will advise the school board on the situation or issue,” Oto said.
The task force is modeled after a similar student group was established at San Luis Coastal Unified School District last fall. Oto said he believes Coastal and VUSD are the only two unified school districts attempting to gather a diverse group of students work through differences on campus.
“We are going slow and being careful with this but we are really excited about something we feel is very innovative,” Oto said.
Once both boards are operating this fall, the first order of business will be presenting dress code changes to the board. The student and adult committees were born out of campus controversy surrounding a sweater bearing the confederate flag. Last September, a 15-year-old Redwood High School student wore a sweatshirt with the Confederate flag to school. Images of the boy were posted on Snapchat with the hashtag “white power.” As the image began trending locally on other social media platforms, the boy’s mother kept him home from school out of fear for his safety.
At its Nov. 7 meeting, the school board was scheduled to approve adding the words “other hate groups” to the list of things students cannot reference on their clothing, jewelry or personal items. But four high school seniors and an attorney with the ACLU each took the podium to urge the district not to approve the change, saying it did not go far enough to address underlying racial tension on campus. The district’s law firm convinced the school board to delay their vote again in January because the phrase “other hate groups” was undefined and could be seen as infringing on students’ First Amendment rights. Instead, the attorney encouraged VUSD to discuss items of free speech on a case-by-case basis.