Photo and illustration by Arden Margulis.
On Wednesday, May 10th, members of the M-A Black Student Union (BSU) presented their petition and public comments to the Sequoia Union High School District Board of Trustees regarding the arrest of an M-A student. 14 people spoke in support of the BSU, and speakers at the meeting included BSU members, former teacher Sherinda Bryant, district staff member Taja Henderson, Millbrae City Council Member Maurice Goodman, members of Tha Hood Squad, M-A teachers, and community members. Many of their speeches encouraged the implementation of the BSU’s petition action items.
In response to BSU’s calls for change, M-A Principal Karl Losekoot said, “The asks of the petition are thoughtful and reasonable things that we should be discussing. In some ways, we are already doing many of the things that are suggested, though there are ways we can improve on them.”
SUHSD School Board President Richard Ginn said, “I support reviewing any and all policies where there are questions about whether they’re appropriate. But, keeping our students and staff safe is number one.”
The M-A Chronicle asked Losekoot, Ginn, and BSU supporters about the eight action items in the petition.
BSU advisor and social studies teacher Chloe Gentile-Montgomery said, “I would like to see clear policies for what to do if there is a situation where the police might need to be called, making sure that you follow specific steps first before trying to call the police such as involving students’ parents and people they feel safe with on campus. I don’t think calling the police is the right thing to do, personally. But if you’re going to call the police, make sure that you remind them not to use force because cops don’t act that way automatically, especially not with Black students.”
Losekoot said, “Clear procedures are a very reasonable ask. I am not sure if we’d write out a policy. We should be discussing what the district-wide policy on calling the police is. I want to be clear that we try not to call the police. We call the police when we feel like there is a safety situation that we cannot de-escalate, and when it feels imminent.”
Ginn said, “If police are needed to keep students and staff safe, I wouldn’t want to compromise that.”
Losekoot said in his weekly Bear Notes, “As we do every year, we will review policies and procedures that have surfaced this year as problematic.”
Sophomore BSU President Apollo Jackson said, “I don’t think admin does any de-escalation training.”
Losekoot said, “I think there is an assumption, not just in the petition but on campus, that there is currently no de-escalation training when actually, our front office participates in some sort of de-escalation training almost every year. Administrators did earlier this year along with campus aides.”
Some argue that the administration needs to do more. Freshman and BSU member Eboni Freeman said, “I know that staff knows how to do things like ‘I’ statements, like they would say, ‘I feel upset about what you’re saying,’ but that only goes so far. As we can see [with the incident on April 28th], just talking to a student in a nice voice while also being assertive did not work.”
Gentile-Montgomery said, “I would like to see the school require in-person de-escalation training for all staff.” She continued, “The only way you can get trained, as a teacher, is if you opt in to the PCRC’s [Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center] collaboration time with the school, and very few teachers are part of that group. I think our collaboration meetings are usually about 10 of us.”
Losekoot explained that de-escalation training is not currently mandatory. He said, “We asked the people that we wanted to go, and they went.” He added that all administrators chose to participate in de-escalation training partially because they found themselves in situations where they needed it. All campus aides also opted-in to receive de-escalation training. In a statement in the Bear Notes newsletter on May 21st, he said, “[The administration is] planning to provide all staff training around conflict resolution and we are exploring all staff de-escalation training as well.”
Jackson said, “I wish they shared all of the information. We currently don’t know who started what.” Some student information is protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and the administration described being hesitant to share more.
Losekoot said, “I’m just not so sure if it’s responsible for us to put out [information about the incident] because I think it can lead to more dramatization and more sensationalization. I don’t know if that’s good for the staff involved and if it’s good for the student involved.”
Freeman disagreed with the administration’s approach. “They sent an email that basically said, ‘Something happened with a student and we called the police.’ That’s all we knew for the first week or so. To me, not giving us all of the information seemed very irresponsible as that allowed things to come out that weren’t true.”
An email from Losekoot two days after the incident said, “There was physical contact made against one of the site leaders along with several verbal threats made towards that staff member […] and a clear threat to the safety of our students and/or staff.”
Freeman said, “We need counselors because somebody needed to go in and separate the administrator and the student to get them to communicate without having them directly interact.”
Losekoot said, “This year, we contracted with Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center, and we brought in a staff member that is at M-A four days a week and is extremely knowledgeable about conflict resolution. BSU and I would have to sit down and talk about how that meets that need or not. We’ve done some things to try to bring in resources that help us resolve conflict in ways that don’t lead to discipline or don’t lead to referrals to the office and I am really proud of those things.” This school year, M-A has seen historic lows in suspension rates and referrals to the office.
Losekoot said, “We talked about a few ideas to that end last year. We’d like to resurface those conversations. Last year, we talked about possibly having a peer mediator class. That class was not approved at the district level, and I think it could be, but the class would need to be further developed and fleshed out. It’s a great idea.” According to Losekoot, the school added to their contract with PCRC training for some students in peer mediation. They did not develop that program this year but will reconsider it for next year.
According to the Department of Justice, a school resource officer is a sworn law enforcement officer responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools.
Losekoot explained, “The day this incident happened, he was at a training which is part of being an Atherton Police officer.”
Freeman said, “He has been at training for the last few violent incidents. If he is always at training, he’s not fit for the job, obviously.”
The current SRO serves as an officer for the nine schools in Atherton but has been at M-A more often since two guns were found on campus. M-A is working on increasing SRO presence on campus, and the Comprehensive School Safety Plan for the coming 2023-2024 school year states that M-A will have an SRO full-time for four days a week.
On the value of the SRO, Losekoot commented, “If an officer gets to know us, we are able to communicate the ways in which we want that officer to be involved or not involved. It’s different than just calling the police department and getting officers that you may not know to come down.”
Freeman expressed that, “[Students] have no relationship with the SRO. All I see is him being like, ‘Hey, I’m here, so don’t do anything.’ I don’t know you so you don’t make me feel comfortable. If there were more relations with the SRO, students would be more comfortable with him on campus.”
Losekoot continued, “We want students to have positive interactions with the SRO. He is available to talk about law enforcement and his job to classes. I don’t think that’s happened because no one has asked. Impressively, the SRO is currently an assistant wrestling coach, which I think is really cool. He did that on his own; it wasn’t required.”
Losekoot said, “I understand the apprehension to have interaction with a police officer, even if it’s a friendly one; the SRO is aware of that. I think he wants to be able to engage students and doesn’t always feel like students want to engage with him.”
Losekoot said, “‘Black students do not feel safe or welcome’ is painful to hear because you want students to feel safe and to feel like they belong here.”
Freeman said, “I’ve met with Mr. Losekoot two separate times, and I’m kind of disappointed in his responses. I would rather have [the administrator who dealt with the student] take the time because this situation is about [them].”
Discussing the effectiveness of M-A’s current policies, Gentile-Montgomery said, “The fact that the student went into the office so defensive and so angry goes to show how unsafe students feel in the office. A big part of de-escalation is relationship building, and I don’t think the people in the office have the greatest relationships with our students at M-A.”
Losekoot said, “We care about all of our students on this campus. We’re deeply committed to them. I know that there’s some students that will disagree with that. But that’s our experience. We want to hear what student experiences are and how they feel like we’re coming up short, and we want to engage in a process where we can learn and take action to improve.”
Regarding the incident on Friday, April 28th, Freeman said, “If there were more Black staff, they might have known how to talk to that student because Black students are more comfortable talking to Black staff than anyone else.”
Jackson added, “There are barely any Black staff. They just need to hire more, it’s not that hard.” According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it is illegal to hire someone based on race. However, the school can make the hiring process more inviting to teachers.
Losekoot said, “In 2021, we started a process in finding out how we can make the interview process more inviting for BIPOC staff. The staff know that’s something we need to work on. We need to have panels that are more diverse. We’ve really tried to implement that.”
Gentile-Montgomery said, “Right now, Black teachers don’t want to apply to work in our district. They’ve heard of the racial trauma, they saw our superintendent [leave] without any real explanation, and now there’s this situation as well. As a new teacher here, lots of people don’t want to stay, I don’t want to tell my friends to come, it’s a mess. There’s some great Black educators, but right now they don’t want to work here.”
Gentile-Montgomery said, “If the district is really committed to making [Black staff] feel safe then they need to meet the goals of the petition.”
Losekoot said, “I want to discuss with the BSU the things we are already doing and see if those things meet their needs. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the petition and I look forward to talking more about the petition items with the BSU.”