Students rally at Temecula Valley High School to protest ongoing concerns about racism

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Students stormed out of Temecula Valley High School on Monday to protest their ongoing concerns about discrimination at the school after a string of racist graffiti and other race-related incidents. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

Temecula Valley High School students walked out of school Monday to protest what they described as school administrators’ failure to protect the rights of minority students and mishandling of incidences of racist and hate speech on campus.

Led by senior Solona Husband, a group of more than two dozen teenagers marched through campus during break, chanting things like “education is a right, not just for the rich and white” and “no hate speech on our campus” before storming through the high school’s administration building to rally at the school’s front entrance.

“I have always dealt with racism on this campus but I always suffered in silence,” Husband said at the protest. “I dealt with so much racism and hatred that I lost myself and became a miserable and depressed person. I was mean, hostile and had my guard up. That is what a hostile environment does to you.”

She said at TVHS, where white students make up the plurality of the student body, few understood what it was like to be the only black person in a class.

No one knew what it felt like to have people stare at you when the topic of slavery came up,” Husband said. “I have always been vocal about human rights and injustices against marginalized groups of people, but recently I felt it in my heart to do more. Today, I am doing more. I am supported by a powerful and fearless group of students. I am here with rule changers.”

The protest is the latest event in a series of ongoing attempts by Husband and others to draw attention to racism they say exists at Temecula Valley High, where less than 3 percent of students are black.

The story began back in August, when a student painted a Confederate flag on his senior parking spot. Husband and at least one other student complained about the painting. The school eventually came to an agreement in mid-September with the student’s parents to have it removed. By that time, it had been two-and-a-half weeks since the flag appeared.

The school’s principal argued at the time that the design was “not the actual Confederate flag, which is red and blue — this is orange and blue” as it had been painted in reference to the flag from the TV and movie franchise “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

But he said the school will review all senior parking spot designs moving forward to avoid any future difficulties.

“Because here’s what I especially feel bad about – if the intent of putting the flag there was just to celebrate a movie, the family spent eight hours putting that symbol down,” TVHS Principal Allen Williams said in a September phone interview. “Then it becomes more emotional to have to remove that, and I think that’s difficult and I don’t feel good about doing that, but based on the circumstances and based on the growing concerns that were expressed about that being on campus, we had to.”

It was that response and the time it took for the school to respond to the flag that upset Husband and other students who would go on to become supporters of the movement she would start.

After the flag incident, Husband started the hashtag #TVHSneedschange, which caused students to share stories of racism and many other forms of discrimination they say they have experienced at their school.

Husband would also later be targeted twice by graffiti on campus calling her the n-word.

Students at Monday’s protest cited the Confederate flag incident as one of their main issues with school administrators.

“TVHS’ administration allowed and accepted a Confederate flag to be painted on the senior lot,” sophomore Sherab Thinley said, addressing the students who assembled in front of the campus. “They did not remove the flag until multiple students were forced to act and our current principal even released a statement saying that he regretted asking them to remove a hate symbol.”

Thinley also derided the school and district’s attempt to implement a safety plan contract with Husband after the n-word graffiti incidents.

“TVHS has had a string of hateful, derogatory and illegal attempts to silence Solona Husband who rightfully speaks out against the racism she faces for being non-tolerant of anti-blackness,” Thinley said.

In December, Husband and her parents met with district officials to discuss issues and concerns regarding her safety after the racist graffiti was discovered, according to both Husband and district representative Laura Boss.

Husband said initially that she emerged from the meeting feeling reassured.

But when she returned for a follow up meeting, she said the district presented her with a “safety plan” contract that would have given her protection like an escort to and from class, conditioned on ceasing some of her behavior on social media.

A copy of the document she provided to Valley News shows she was asked not to do things such as “negatively naming TVHS students/teams/activities on social media or other related outlets” and “publicly confronting students about racism and alleged racism in person and/or on social media.”

Husband said she and her family refused to sign the document.

Temecula Valley Unified School District spokeswoman Laura Boss confirmed the document was real but said it was an “initial draft discussion document to the family which was designed to begin a dialogue about concerns and how the site could address and best support the student.” 

Husband said she and her family still would not agree to the conditions in a document provided at another followup meeting at the end of the fall semester, saying they were a betrayal of what she was originally told.

“I felt manipulated because they were telling me, basically, ‘Yeah, just tell your followers to just trust us. Be on our side now, the school is gonna do what we’re supposed to do,’” Husband said in December. “And then we have the meeting with the safety plan, and they give me this contract basically telling me that I can’t talk about racism on social media and in school, I can’t videotape … it’s basically telling me if you be quiet and let us do our job, we’ll protect you.”

Students said the purpose of their rally was to call out these issues.

“We wanted to be heard rather than silenced because there have been multiple instances on campus where a minority has come to administration with a problem and they either just brush it off or, like with Solona’s contract, they try to silence them altogether,” TVHS student Elaina Loza said.

And while the n-word graffiti has garnered the most attention, one student said there have been other instances of racism at TVHS.

“Last year and my freshman year I had two instances where I was sitting on a club, Asian Students Alliance, and somebody poked their head in and said a racial slur toward me,” student Megan Sample said. “She called us all ch—s, then left and before we had time to process she was already gone. But the second time we actually got a look at who it was so we were able to figure it out and report it, however, we heard nothing about if anything was done or not.”

Monday’s rally was initially being planned by students without any input from school administration, but Husband was in talks with TVHS’s principal last week to turn it into a school-sanctioned event, with a designated period for the rally. However, Husband said she and supporters decided not to follow the school’s plan when issues arose.

“Me and (TVHS Principal Allen) Williams were emailing back and forth,” Husband said, “and he had different rough drafts of bell schedules and then he said OK, I have it, I’ll send it on Saturday, then he sent me another email — ‘complications happened, we can’t do that, we’ll send it on Sunday.’”

On Sunday, the principal emailed her to let her know the bell schedule would actually remaining the same on Monday, with the rally taking place during fourth period, according to a screenshot provided by Husband.

“And I was just — you promised us that you’d change the bell schedule and you didn’t do that,” Husband said of her reaction. “So we finally pushed and got him to keep his promise, so the bell schedule was changed but we felt like there was a distrust, because we had to fight so hard for it. At first he was only gonna give us one hour to protest, but we agreed on an hour and a half at least and going into lunch as well, but we felt like he’s not keeping his word so why should we keep ours?”

It was that rationale that led Husband and her supporters to decide to storm out during break, though they headed back to campus later to participate in the school-sanctioned rally. Students were not punished for walking out.

Boss, the district’s spokeswoman, said administrators and representatives from the Riverside County Office of Education Equity Department worked with the student organizers of Monday’s planned event to “coordinate a collaborative event focused on anti-hate speech,” and while a tentative schedule was mocked up late Friday afternoon, changes became necessary.

“Changing a bell schedule is unfortunately not a simple task and (Williams) had to review the logistics and vet it with other sources, on the weekend, when not everyone was readily available,” Boss said. “So, it was delayed as he reviewed, considered, and resolved concerns.  Ultimately, the bell schedule was changed and reflected the students originally requested timeframe.  It was confirmed and communicated to students and staff prior to today’s event.”

Student organizers said they were mostly pleased with the turnout of the planned event and the engagement of their fellow students.

“For the most part I felt like the student body was receptive and excited,” Husband said. “It was really touching and empowering.”

She also said she thought she was making headway even with students who were not so receptive to her cause.

“For the small group of students, I know them and they were kind of, to me, blinded because they believed that our pain and what we go through is something that doesn’t exist just because they don’t see it or because they don’t experience it personally,” Husband said. “So I feel like in a way some of them are willing to listen and I think that today really gave them an open eye to our side, so I’m hoping that they’ll reconsider some of the things. But you know, it’s high school so there’s gonna be more of this.”

Though Husband and others said they were glad the school did ultimately work with them to provide a rally period, they did have problems with some of the planning, even aside from changes to timing.

For instance, they said parents were turned away after they had been reassured by the school district they would be allowed in.

Boss said some parents may have been turned away, but attributed it to an error in communication with campus supervision.

“For the safety of the campus, consistent with the protocol not to allow outsiders, we had campus supervision at the street entrance to ensure that all visitors coming into the parking lot of the campus had stated business with the school,” Boss said. “Unfortunately, if someone showed up and said they were there for the protest, it is likely they were denied access.  We had a plan in place for staff at the gate to call a designated cell # to check in with if there were specific questions. Unfortunately, with a short period of time to plan for this event and logistically put the moving pieces in place this morning, it appears there may have been a miscommunication about the protocol between staff with regards to parents of speakers.  It was never the intent to deny any parents of student speakers access.”

Student organizers also said they had been told media would be allowed on campus during the school-sanctioned rally. Reporters were allowed to remain at the school’s front entrance, outside of the closed campus, when students stormed through the administration building, but Valley News was never told access would be granted onto the campus.

Despite those issues, both students and administrators seemed to regard the rally as a positive step forward.

“This is just the beginning. TVHS still needs change, but today was the first big step,” student Hallie Brooks said.

In an email to parents, Williams said school administrators “look forward to the work ahead.”

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Temecula Valley High School sophomore Sherab Thinley’s name.