erry Loya had just transferred to West County High School in Sebastopol and was looking to make new friends when a white student approached him in the hallway.
She asked what ethnicity he was. But before Loya could respond, she said, "You look Indian. I’m going to call you my little Indian friend."
She did that for months, even after Loya told her he is not Indian but Black, Mexican and Japanese.
A freshman at the time, Loya says he was afraid to speak out.
“I didn't say anything because I was ashamed of where I was, and I was scared and I didn't want any backlash," said Loya, who is now a junior. "And also, I didn't want anybody to flip the script on me because I can count all the POCs that go to my school, you know?"
A big part of his fear was being a minority student in a school where two-thirds of the students are white.
“So if you think about it, they can all come against us,” Loya said. “And that's a scary thing to think about.”
So Loya put up with it. Other students of color at West County High say they have, too.
“I hear racial slurs most commonly in the boys' restrooms and the hallways. The N-word, racial slurs against Mexicans, Asian Americans,” said Dylan Peña Pérez, a senior who's nearing graduation.
Peña Pérez and several other students of color at West County High say these and other aggressions are commonplace. He says the school has a culture of normalized racism and, despite complaints to administrators, not enough gets done to change it.
He points to incidents like one earlier this year in which a white student called a Black student the N-word. The white student's five-day suspension was reduced to two days after she wrote an apology. Some students said reducing the penalty amounted to giving the white student "a long weekend."
At a recent girls' basketball game, two West County High School fans in the stands — a white student and an Asian student — made gorilla sounds when Black players from the opposing team took the floor. The home team suffered no consequences.
Then in early April, a racist "promposal" from a white student hit Instagram and made the rounds in the community. Jerry Loya saw the post.
“It said, ‘If I were Black, I'd be picking cotton, but I'm not, so I'm picking you. Prom?’ It's just blatant racism that she wasn't even trying to hide it. And she also had two or three other of her friends post it, too,” Loya said.
Suddenly Principal Shauna Ferdinandson’s office phones were ringing off the wall from people throughout Sebastopol.
“Everybody in every demographic of student showed up, up in arms about what they were looking at,” said Ferdinandson.
Students on the newly formed Antiracist Student Committee who had been trying to get Ferdinandson to see the pervasive racism they were experiencing said it was only after the racist promposal went public that the principal took action.
“I'm gonna be honest, I truly feel they don't know how and what to do because I think that they're more worried about their image rather than helping a solution and a cause,” Loya said.
The students led a school walkout in protest over the promposal in late April. About 300 of West County's 1,100 students left their tutorial period to gather in the school’s shady courtyard. They wore white T-shirts emblazoned with antiracist slogans in red ink. School leadership supported the walkout.
Students like Loya and Peña Pérez on the Antiracist Student Committee also were calling school leaders out at meetings of the West Sonoma County Union High School District board.
At a meeting last month, board President Patrick Nagle thanked students for telling the trustees what’s going on.
“We are not here every day, so if people don’t bring it to our attention or, as you said, 'bug us', we don’t know about it,” he told Peña Pérez, who is the student board representative. Peña Pérez pushed back.
“If you haven’t heard about this before, it is because you haven’t created a bridge where they can trust you with this information," he said.
In fact, the district has been failing its minority students for years.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights slammed West Sonoma County Union High School District officials officials for failing to intervene on behalf of a student of color who was subjected to frequent racist harassment for two years.
The office's inquiry found that both district officials and administrators at the school, then called Analy High, did not adequately follow up in their investigation of racist slurs and threats directed at the student. He subsequently transferred to another school while the white students who targeted him suffered no punishment.
The federal report also said that facts it uncovered during its investigation — including use of the N-word on campus and school surveys that showed substantial numbers of Latino, Black and mixed-race students reporting episodes of racist harassment — showed that students of color were being subjected to a hostile environment.
Ferdinandson was vice principal at the school then. She says she built lessons about racism and empathy to comply with an agreement between the West County district and the Office for Civil Rights.
"We implemented everything they asked for," Ferdinandson says, but acknowledges that after she became principal in 2019, progress stalled due to the pandemic and having to manage the consolidation of two high schools.
However, Ferdinandson says the school acted immediately to bring in the students behind the racist promposal.
“We had consequences around all of that. And we've told everyone that we are dealing with this, and we are taking it seriously,” she said. She said she could not give specifics due to student privacy concerns.
Currently there are 263 cases of racial discrimination in elementary and secondary schools being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
Many students of color at West County High who spoke about experiencing racism would not share their experiences publicly for this story for fear of being confronted by their white peers at school. Some said their parents are immigrants who worry their children will get hurt.
Peña Pérez says speaking out has made him uneasy. “At times it feels as if I'm putting a target on myself, especially at a predominantly white community that is Sebastopol. At times I don't feel safe at school,” he said.
Peña Pérez says it would help if more teachers at West County High were trained to step in and stop racist behavior. “Some of them actually contribute to this problem by being passively racist. They also don't speak up in class when they hear other students say racist stuff,” he said.
Ferdinandson agreed training is needed for teachers and staff so they can recognize and disrupt comments that are racist, homophobic, sexist or simply insensitive to others. She said she met recently with the NAACP Santa Rosa-Sonoma, which is sending her resources for teacher training next year.
Students also are calling for ethnic studies to be made a graduation requirement immediately in the district, for training in restorative justice practices and for more severe consequences for student racist behavior. Ferdinandson says she is exploring these ideas.
The burden falls to students of color
After the racist promposal hit the school, Principal Ferdindanson decided to hold an emergency all-school assembly.
She asked the co-presidents of the Antiracist Student Committee to recruit other students of color to stand up on stage in front of their peers and speak about their experiences of feeling attacked or unwelcome at the school. No professional mediator was there or met with the students ahead of time.
Students said they were nervous and scared. They also said it felt important to speak up and be heard. Jerry Loya was one of nine who took the stage. “This is like a battle, this is a war we have to keep fighting,” he said afterward.
He says that as difficult as the situation is for him, at least the topic of racism is out in the open and people are talking about it. And that resulted in a concrete gesture from a fellow student. The girl who called him her “little Indian friend” wrote him an apology after the assembly.
“That was a big step for me, too," Loya said. "She also got a lot of backlash for it, which I don't want to say is a good thing, but it is also a good thing, because it just shows that other people are listening to my story.”
He's right: Other people are listening.
After three months of students demanding that the district remove several plaques that had been donated by Native Sons of the Golden West starting in 1935, including one embedded in the concrete at the entrance to West County High, the district's board of trustees took up the issue for a vote on May 4.
The Native Sons of the Golden West, an organization that said it was dedicated to preserving "the spirit of the 'Days of '49,'" carried on a decades-long campaign to limit the rights of ethnic minorities in California, especially people of Japanese descent.
At the May 4 board meeting, women leaders from the Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition of the North Bay and the Sonoma County Japanese American Citizens League came to stand alongside West County students like KatieAnn Nguyen as she spoke.
Nguyen, a senior, said it was unfair that she and others had to take time away from studying for AP tests that night to ask for basic decency from the board.
“The sacrifices myself and others have made for this school is utterly devastating because we have given up so much just for you to hear us,” Nguyen told the board. “Tonight, I am not just asking you to remove the Native Sons of the Golden West plaques, but to also make a promise to our community, to your students here, that you'll do everything in your power to ensure the voices of the students are heard, that they are respected, and that most of all, they can find a place to call home. Here at West County High School.”
The Japanese American Citizens League’s Gail Yamamoto asked the board to ensure that the history of the plaques — and the reasons they're being removed — become part of the school’s curriculum.
“Healing starts when we come together to face what history teaches us. It should involve honest and sustained dialogues by all stakeholders. More importantly, it must include sincere efforts to listen to the voices of those who do not feel safe,” Yamamoto said.
The board voted unanimously to remove the plaques.
Students Peña Pérez and Nguyen say this feels like a victory, and they are continuing to meet with Ferdinandson about their other demands: a mandatory ethnic studies requirement, teacher training, and more severe consequences for student racist behavior.
They add that they will hand off an activism blueprint to younger students to keep the pressure on school officials next school year.
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