A group of high school students from San Antonio ISD asked the district to listen to students in a more meaningful way when making decisions Monday.
Their comments during a district board meeting were a response to a student bill of rights and code of conduct approved by the board earlier in the school year.
At the time, district leaders said the policy changes were created with student input. But the students said Monday their input was limited. They challenged SAISD officials to more fully live up to ideals outlined in the bill of rights, which includes the right for their ideas to be heard and considered.
“We have a lot of, in theory, amazing opportunities for students to be able to use their voice. But we’ve noticed that same issue of, ‘Oh, I’m being talked at and not talked with,’ said Bella Garcia, a senior at Young Women’s Leadership Academy. “We kind of want to bring up that power dynamic that maybe the district is intentionally doing or maybe they aren’t.”
Garcia said the student input collected for the policy changes was a survey focused on the code of conduct, not the bill of rights.
“It was like, weirdly random, but also like, not random,” Garcia said. “They basically got a bunch of students in a room (and had an administrator ask them questions). It was this really weird, controlled environment.”
Garcia said students would have been less intimidated and more likely to provide honest answers if the survey had been conducted by another student.
“When you want to get real input from students, it needs to be by students and from students,” Garcia said.
The students also challenged the district to come up with a plan to fully implement the revisions to the code of conduct, which are intended to reduce suspensions and give schools proactive ways to discipline issues.
“A lot of what I see, as a student, is students being sent to in-school suspension or being handled by police officers, when the district has outlined that those aren't what they need to be doing,” said Alejo Peña Soto, a junior at Jefferson High School. “We applaud you for passing and adopting the bill of rights, but the implementation needs to be done.”
Peña Soto said the intervention strategies outlined in the code of conduct, such as peer mentoring, meditation and counseling, aren’t yet being utilized at his school.
“My experience as a student is drastically different from some of my peers, who are told that their punishment for wearing a certain type of clothing or for having facial hair that's too long is missing class,” said Peña Soto, adding that he is privileged by his participation in honors classes and extracurricular activities.
Several students also said they wanted schools to stop calling campus police officers for discipline issues.
“We need cops on campuses, but for different reasons,” said Rena Estala, a freshman at YWLA. “Like, if it's a true crime issue like a lockdown or someone suspicious in the area, then yes, cops will be needed. But if like the kid is just acting up or out of dress code that’s not an issue they should (handle).”
All told, about a dozen students spoke during the board meeting, carrying signs that read “Counselors, not cops” and “Nada por los estudiantes sin los estudiantes (Nothing for students without students).” They said they represented a group of about 20 to 30 students from most of the district’s high schools.
Superintendent Pedro Martinez told the students that he wanted them to pick a Saturday where he could meet with them all.
“I want to make sure that you have all the information you need, because I think you're absolutely right about where we're at as a district,” Martinez said. “The student bill of rights is the very beginning.”
“I just want you to be independent thinkers. I want to make sure that nobody is driving you in a certain direction,” Martinez said.
The students were supported by members of the district’s teachers union, which has been at odds with district leadership in recent years.