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In Wake of Divisive Election, Santa Barbara County Schools Seek to Stay Centered

While some students look to continue protests against President-elect Donald Trump, administrators say they’re trying to tone it down

Santa Barbara High School students march from campus to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Garden to hold a rally protesting President-elect Donald Trump on Nov. 9. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara High School students march from campus to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Garden to hold a rally protesting President-elect Donald Trump on Nov. 9. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk file photo)

Santa Barbara County has seen a handful of protests against President-elect Donald Trump following the Republican’s Nov. 8 victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Four of the five demonstrations were organized by students, including a coordinated high school walkout on Nov. 9.

Unlike many protests around the nation, the local marches have been peaceful and largely uneventful.

But the tension produced by the 2016 presidential campaign — and the reaction to Trump’s triumph — doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

While Trump swept to victory in the Electoral College, 290 to 232, Clinton won handily in Santa Barbara County, with 59.8 percent of the vote to Trump’s 32.1 percent, as of Tuesday’s latest tally by the county Elections Office.

Clinton’s margin of victory was even higher statewide, with Californians choosing her over Trump, 61.6 percent to 32.9 percent — a staggering difference of more than 3 million votes.

Vocal local opposition to Trump has been evident in the last week.

UC Santa Barbara students clogged Isla Vista streets in an impromptu protest the night of the election and held a campus rally the next day.

On Saturday, more than 1,000 anti-Trump demonstrators marched down State Street in a gesture that organizers said was intended to unify the community and denounce hate.

Trump still won the votes of more than 45,000 county residents, however. They just aren’t organizing public rallies.

So how are local school districts handling the contentious aftermath?

Students from three of the Santa Barbara Unified School District’s public high schools — Dos Pueblos, San Marcos and Santa Barbarawalked out of classes en masse at noon Nov. 9.

Earlier that day, Superintendent Cary Matsuoka sent a message to staff to inform them about the planned protests.

“This is an important day for our students as they make sense of the future, and we should allow this expression of student voice,” he said.

Matsuoka’s instructions were for staff to focus on the safety of all students, regardless of political stance; to supervise students as they gathered and left campus; and to not block any student from leaving class to protest.

It was not, he wrote, school staff’s place to participate in or lead the demonstrations.

“Please do not participate in the protest,” his statement said. “Do not lead the movement of students. For some of you, if your entire class participates, I do want you to walk alongside with students. But please do not leave any student unsupervised in classrooms.”

Dos Pueblos High School students leave campus to join a UC Santa Barbara election protest on Nov. 9. Click to view larger
Dos Pueblos High School students leave campus to join a UC Santa Barbara election protest on Nov. 9. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk file photo)

Matsuoka sent a message to parents as well, acknowledging that many students were concerned about the election’s outcome.

“We understand their desire to express their opinions, a foundational value of our society,” he said in that statement.

District officials told Noozhawk at the time that administrators, in addition to some school staff, monitored the demonstrations to make sure students were safe.

During the Dos Pueblos High walkout, about 100 students decided to make the three-mile trek to UCSB to join the college protest. The rest of the students wandered back to class.

One student, a Trump supporter, described his experience in a series of Facebook posts. He said his teacher started talking about the election and saying “nasty things” about Trump supporters to his class.

The student said he felt offended and left the classroom, and his teacher followed him out to apologize.

Principal Shawn Carey confirmed to Noozhawk that she met for several hours Monday with the student, his parents and the teacher. She said the conversations were productive but that it was too soon to know what will come of the incident.

“The parties had an opportunity to sit and talk with and listen to each other and work out some understandings,” Carey said.

She said there have been additional calls for student walkouts, and a “mini protest” was staged Monday.

Following the election, Carey said, she sent an email to staff encouraging everyone to be role models for students — teaching them how to listen, how to understand and be understood, and to respect the opinions of others.

“There’s a higher standard for us as educators, for sure,” she said Monday.

Carey told school staff to focus on learning, but expressed the administration’s full support for dialog when teachable moments present themselves.

As educators, “it’s our duty and our privilege to rise above the common fray,” she said.

The Santa Barbara Unified School District does have a board policy on controversial issues, which Carey said she reminded teachers about during the election campaign and again on the day after.

“The study of a controversial issue should help students learn how to gather and organize pertinent facts, discriminate between fact and fiction, draw intelligent conclusions and respect the opinions of others,” the SBUSD policy states.

Santa Barbara High Principal John Becchio said he wants classrooms to “get back to business as usual.”

“It’s really a space where our constituency expects us to instruct in the content area and have kids learn,” he said. “I think where they get upset is when that gets put on hold for something that’s not really relevant to the curriculum.

“I heard from parents on that end last week.”

Becchio also made a campus-wide announcement Tuesday about the importance of being a school community.

“We’re all Dons” was the message, he said, even if people disagree with each other.

“It seems to be pretty mellow at this point,” he said Tuesday, adding that the long Veterans Day weekend helped diffuse tensions.

Social studies classes are a natural place for election-related discussions, and Becchio said he urged teachers to be impartial and guide the discussion, but not exert their political views.

“Not all of them agree with me,” he laughed.

At Carpinteria High School, there were no student demonstrations or election-related incidents last week, interim Carpinteria Unified School District Superintendent Brian Sarvis told Noozhawk.

The campus’ semi-rural location may have had something to do with it, not being within easy walking distance of a town center, he speculated.

Instead, Sarvis said, teachers used the election as a “teachable moment” and led discussions in the classrooms.

There were two comments brought to Carpinteria High Principal Gerardo Cornejo’s attention — one negative toward Trump and one negative toward Clinton — and school staff spoke to each student about the appropriate way to express one’s self, Sarvis said.

He added that there have been staff discussions, but not about teachers’ own feelings as much as how to talk with students about America’s political system.

“There are strong feelings,” Sarvis noted. “There’s that attempt to try and balance it when you probably have so many voices in one direction and so few in the other direction.”

In Santa Maria, social studies classes are talking in general terms about democracy and the political process, said Kenny Klein, a spokesman for the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District. There have been no student protests.

“We have had general conversations started at all sites about respect and responsible dialog,” he told Noozhawk in an email.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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