#TVHSneedschange: Temecula Valley High School grapples with conversations about racism, bullying

In August, a student painted a Confederate flag on his parking spot at Temecula Valley High School. The backlash that followed erupted into a conversation about racism and other forms of discrimination some students say they experience at Temecula’s oldest high school. Will Fritz photo

A couple of months ago, it was business as usual at Temecula Valley High School, when the 2019-2020 school year was just getting underway.

Then, a student painted a Confederate flag on his parking space, and at least two students reported it to administration.

One of those students began posting on Twitter about various issues of racism she said she sees as a black student every day on the 34-year-old campus, which had a student body that was 48.8% white, 32% Hispanic and just 3% black during the 2018-2019 school year, according to California Department of Education statistics.

She started to get some backlash for her tweets from other students, and she believed, from administration.

In the process of responding to that backlash, the student created a hashtag – #TVHSneedschange – and though she used it in reference to her specific complaints about the racist climate she said exists at Temecula Valley, other students began to use it to post about their own personal stories of bullying, harassment and other issues at the school. Two months after the Confederate flag was first spotted on campus the debate has turned into a much larger conversation about issues students perceive with the campus culture at Temecula Valley High School. 

It all started when Solona Husband, 17, spotted the Confederate flag emblazoned on a senior’s parking space early in the morning Sept. 12, three weeks after seniors began painting their spaces. 

“I walked past this parking spot and there was a huge confederate flag, and immediately, I was not surprised but also very frustrated,” Husband, who is president of the school’s Black Student Union, said to the Valley News at the time. “So I took a picture of it and sent it to a couple of my friends, and then I decided to post it on Twitter and Snapchat saying, ‘I can’t believe this is allowed, how can I get rid of it?’”

She spoke to two teachers about the parking spot, both of whom told her they would talk to administration. She later heard back that the school principal knew about the space.

Temecula Valley Unified School District spokeswoman Laura Boss later confirmed the school had received an anonymous complaint about the parking spot Aug. 29, two weeks before Husband noticed it and at least four days after it was painted – an Instagram page belonging to a relative of the student who the spot belongs to shows an image of the flag from Aug. 25. 

Valley News isn’t releasing the name of that student, as his family did not return requests for comment when the Confederate flag was first reported on. 

While the high school’s administration did eventually remove the flag, Husband felt they did not act fast enough – the flag had been on the parking spot for three weeks before it was painted over – and she began.

Over the next few weeks, she was active on Twitter, starting discussions about racism that she believes occurs on campus. While she had many positive comments, there were also a large number of negative comments from students who didn’t see a problem.

On Oct. 16, TVHS Principal Allen Williams went on GBTV – TVHS’s daily video announcements – to address the school about online controversy.

“For instance, let’s say you text somebody something negative or post online … (a) disparaging, negative comment about someone or something,” Williams said to students. “You think that in so doing, everyone will be on your side, but let’s say that you quickly learn that people have their own minds and they disagree with you and try to outdo you, and are incredibly ugly and mean-spirited in how they respond to you. And although you thought that your message will be agreed to by all, you come to know that you have created quite a stir. In these moments you have to think about what message you sent. Was it appropriate?”

Williams never specifically addressed what he was talking about. But Husband saw his comments as being directed at her.

“Is this supposed to intimidate me? Silence me?” she tweeted that day. “You publicly trying to tear down everything I’ve created is another example of black women being silenced by white men. I will not back down. #tvhsneedschange.” 

Williams deferred comment to Temecula Valley Unified School District spokeswoman Laura Boss, who denied that Williams’ comments were directed at Husband specifically.

“Mr. Williams is responsible for over 3,000 students every day. As you can imagine that produces a lot of online activity,” Boss said via email. “Since the issue with the senior painted parking spot, he has been dealing with some students that have shared concerns and opinions online. In addition, over the last two weeks, there was a group that was created on Instagram that targeted TVHS administration regarding racism and hate speech. So, no he didn’t create a video message to have a discussion with an individual student.”

Husband told Valley News she didn’t see who else Williams could have been addressing, though, as she is a large part of why racism and hate speech is a topic of conversation at TVHS.

“I know they check my Twitter almost every day – whenever I’m in their office, they bring it up. They say we agree with what you’re doing, you’re just going about it the wrong way,” Husband said. “They’re basically telling me I’m just too loud. Now, I don’t know what else is being stirred up at my school, but I haven’t been aware of it.”

Her tweet about the video announcements Oct. 16 was the first use of hashtag “#TVHSneedschange” on Twitter, and Husband urged her followers to comment with the hashtag below her tweet. It was quickly picked up by dozens of current and former students to share their stories.

One student said she “heard and saw the racist students discriminating (against) other students.”

Another, who sent messages to a student that were posted as screenshots on Twitter, said she had anti-Semitic remarks directed at her by other students when it was revealed she was Jewish by a teacher.

TVHS junior Brenden Bissell, the student who shared those screenshots, said he personally has experienced “a lot of homophobia” at TVHS. 

“In the locker room or walking around campus, kids call me f—–t all the time. Kids will be like, ‘what are you?’ because I dress pretty feminine,” Bissel said. “It’s like in the locker room people will be like, ‘don’t leave me alone in here with this f—–t.’

“Coaches and stuff have seen it firsthand happen,” he said. “Personally, when I try to talk to Mr. Williams, it seems like he brushed off what I was trying to say and just made himself look good. It didn’t really seem like he cared much, and I know tons of students have reported sexual harassment or othr things, racism…”

Bissell also said he hears the n-word “every day” on campus.

“90% of the time, it’s from students who are not of color,” he said. “I asked Mr. Williams to just start a conversation and he basically ignored that.”

Bissell, too, saw Williams’ video announcement address as being directed at Husband.

“He tried to tell me that it was not about Solona, and it was about a Chicano activist he spoke to the other day that really inspired him,” Bissell said. “Those were his words, but ‘you’ve caused quite a stir’ were his words (on the announcement video) and I didn’t understand what that had to do with a Chicano activist.”

One woman, a 19-year-old TVHS graduate who asked Valley News not to use her name, used the hashtag to describe a way she said TVHS administration failed her and other students during the 2017-2018 school year. 

“Junior year, me and some our of my friends … wanted to set up a suicide prevention program because we unfortunately lost a student to suicide,” the graduate said.

She said she and her friends had conversations with administration for a three-month period to set up this program.

“We had the theater booked for it and everything,” the former student said. “The day that we were going on winter break, Allen Williams brought us into his office and he told us that he had canceled the entire thing because he didn’t feel that suicide prevention would be beneficial.”

She said the incident made her feel like the Williams and other TVHS administrators didn’t care about students.

“I genuinely think it got to the point where he didn’t really care that much, and with him, with any type of issue that the school has, he likes to brush it under the rug,” the student said.

Williams did later apologize for the way his announcement was interpreted, though he again did not directly reference Husband or any other student.

“Previously, I was disappointed to hear that some students said that I had made them feel unsupported. I am sorry for that. This was not the reaction I imagined at all,” he said. “First, let me definitively say to you that Temecula Valley High School has no room for hateful language or symbols … we will fully and completely investigate every offense that is seen, heard, or that is brought to our attention.”

“I will hold my school accountable of these issues,” she said, though. “I expect more.”

In response to the ongoing conversations on Twitter, Boss, the district spokeswoman, said the district is “committed to promoting cultures of tolerance and understanding for all of our students.”

“As a district, supporting culturally proficient school communities is one of our highest priorities,” she said. “At Temecula Valley High School, we are confident in the systematic processes that the administration and staff have in place to receive, respond, investigate and act on every report or concern brought to their direct attention. Our guiding principle will always be to ensure that all of our students feel safe, supported, educated, respected, and valued for who they are as individuals.” 

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