Children and Youth

San Benito High School District declares itself a ‘Safe Haven’

The resolution aims to ease fears among immigrant students and their families.

San Benito High School District board members unanimously approved a resolution on Feb. 14 to declare the school a “Safe Haven School District." The resolution states that the district will focus on promoting and elevating tolerance, inclusiveness and kindness for all students “regardless of their immigration status, ethnicity race religion, sexual orientation, ability, sex and gender identity, socio-economic status or beliefs.”

The resolution is also aimed at easing fears among students and their families that feel they may be targeted under the immigration policies of the Donald Trump administration.

Interim Superintendent Shawn Tennenbaum introduced the agenda item saying, “It has been a very important topic in the state of California. This is a resolution that we see across the state. We see school districts adopting at this particular moment.”

In December, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson encouraged schools throughout California to become “safe havens.”

“Unfortunately, since the presidential election, reports of bullying, harassment, and intimidation of K-12 students based on immigration status, religious, or ethnic identification are on the rise,” he said in a letter distributed to educators.

Tennenbaum added, "looking at the analysis of the federal funds that the district receives and working with our attorney group, we feel that there are strength in numbers because we don’t know what could happen potentially out of Washington, D.C. with federal funds, but we do know that we have an obligation and we feel very strongly to protect all of our students.”

During the public comment portion of the discussion, community member Debbie Simmons said she feels schools are a sanctuary for students. “It’s one of the few places that our community can come and you don't have to worry about your political affiliation, religion, the core focus is for education purposes,” she said. “I think you have a lot of policies in place that protect a lot of the school, the students that are here, the staff. The only thing that I didn’t see protected is students, staff and families' political affiliation and I say that because I never felt more fearful for my daughter,” she said, claiming there are times when teachers have tried to sway students' political beliefs.

She went on to say that while she did not want to come off as intolerant, she wanted the board to stay true to its mission. 

“If you were to adopt this resolution, I would ask that you give it a cooling-off period between the election. I think there’s a lot of anxiety that’s revolved around the rhetoric of the political process,” she said.

Veronica Lezama of San Benito County LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), said, “Over the last 30 years, San Benito LULAC has worked with a lot of young people in the community and have heard first hand some of the fears they have experienced as a result of fear of attending school. The wonderful thing about this resolution is that it supports all students. I did see in the resolution that there’s a recommendation to implement a Day of Understanding. I think that is so wonderful because it could be all-inclusive. It’s not targeted to a specific demographic. I really encourage the high school to include that in your annual calendar. LULAC would be happy to support something like that and work in partnership.”

Former board member Ray Rodriguez said he disagreed with Simmons' “cooling-off period” adding, “I’m afraid we’ve gone too long. A lot of things are rolling and as an educational institution I would say we’re in crisis.This resolution, more than anything else, I believe, is a statement from the current board as it sits and the current administration on how you feel about this topic. It doesn’t change any policy, it clarifies its policy; it clarifies the intents of the board."

The high school district's migrant program regional representative, Julio Salazar, said, “For us, it’s very important, because our goal is for our kids to go to school and just focus on school. If we work together I think we make our community safe. Everyone here has a different point of view, but at the end, everybody has got to be on the same page to support the kids.”

During discussion, Trustee John Corrigan said, “the election didn't go the way people wanted it to, but to me this paragraph is more rhetoric. It doesn't do anything to bring that down and it doesn’t take any step towards calming the situation,” he said referring to a section in the resolution that touched on the outcome of the election.  

He continued by asking fellow board members what would happen if the 2011 policy stated in the resolution regarding ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) not conducting immigration enforcement activity at any sensitive location was to change and if going against the federal government was something the board was prepared to do. “I like the concept, but I don’t know that this is the way to do it,” Corrigan said.

Trustee Patty Nehme spoke about her personal experience as a teacher and having students express their fear about attending school. She said if this resolution could provide peace of mind to her students and their families, then she was in support of it.

Trustee Juan Robledo, said, “This resolution isn’t violating any laws. It doesn't create any new laws.” He added that he didn’t agree that there needed to be a cooling-off period. “A cool-off period won’t happen for the next four years,” he said.

PSAT Results Report

In other board meeting news, Principal Adrian Ramirez presented the PSAT results report for the 2015-2016 school year. 

The PSAT 8&9 is a test that establishes a baseline measurement for students entering high school while the PSAT/NMSQT provides entrance to the National Merit Scholarship program and measures readiness for college.

In 2015, the board voted to spend $10,000 for students in the 10th grade to take the PSAT/NMSQT and in 2016 the school spent $17,000 for students to take the PSAT/NMQST and PSAT 8&9. 

Earlier this fall, ninth graders were given the opportunity to take the PSAT 8&9 for the first time. 

"It gives us an indicator of where our students should be starting with us. It’s also designed to gives us a baseline measurement of where they are compared to where they should be,” said Principal Adrian Ramirez. 

Ninth-grade test participation at SBHS was at 88 percent versus the national average of 48 percent and the state average of 32 percent.

SBHS benchmark scores were lower (20 percent) than the national (39 percent) and the state (25 percent) numbers.

Ramirez attributed this to the fact that the district has all students in their respective grades taking the test, including SPED (Special Education) students and ELL (English Language Learners). 

The test is free for students in the ninth and 10th grades. Students in the 11th grade are also given the opportunity to take the test for a discounted price.

P.E. Recommendation 

The board also voted to change the P.E. requirement from freshman and sophomore year to a two-year P.E. requirement in which a student has to pass the physical fitness test but would be allowed to forgo the class their sophomore year. Additionally, no waiver would be permitted for students participating in other activities such as athletics or band.

As reported previously in BenitoLink, the requirement would have the potential to cause a bottleneck in a students' schedule during their sophomore year. Students who needed support classes were not able to get them because the requirement would not allow for an elective course. 

“P.E is not what’s causing it but its a piece in order to give our students the flexibility to take the courses that they would need to make the demands of the grad requirements,” said Ramirez.

Formal Complaint Submitted

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Ray Rodriguez and his wife, Monica, submitted a formal complaint regarding the school charging students for athletic uniforms —specifically, those for track and field athletes. 

“Two years ago, I brought it to the board's attention that the students were required to buy their track uniforms. Last year, I came to the board to let you know that once again this happened,” Monica Rodriguez said. “San Benito High School and its district cannot sell athletic competition uniforms to its athletic teams.”

Ray Rodriguez said it would cost more than $100 for a student to outfit themselves with the basic necessities and that the Supreme Court ruled that extracurricular activities were an integral part of the education system. He said that what the district is doing is “illegal.

Laura Romero

Laura Romero has been a reporter and handled marketing/social media for BenitoLink. She has covered education and city government. Formerly, she worked as an assistant account executive at Pembroke PR in San Francisco, where she assisted with press outreach, event coordination, and social media planning. With her PR skills, she has helped to implement social media strategies and develop online giving campaigns for BenitoLink. Laura continues to contribute to BenitoLink on a freelance basis.