In a meeting Wednesday with parents, students and residents as well as Superintendent Tim Payne, seated far right, and College Place High School Principal Kirk Jameson, Jose Gutierrez, father to students in College Place Public Schools, shares his concerns about how Latino kids are treated at College Place High School.

COLLEGE PLACE — Toward the end of two and a half hours of hearing from Latino students, their parents and community members Wednesday evening about racism and other problems they believe are present at College Place High School, Principal Kirk Jameson told the audience of more than 60 that the accusations were “absolutely not true.”

Still, he said, “We have committed to taking this information and making the changes we need to make … I apologize to everyone in here if I offended you in any way.”

And Superintendent Tim Payne promised efforts would be made to address problems voiced at the meeting.

The gathering in College Place High School’s band room had its genesis two weeks ago when a few dozen Latino parents and students met to discuss issues their children reported having at the high school. Concerns cited that night included discrimination, violation of free speech, denial of a request to start a Latino club and overall unequal treatment for Latino students.

A letter dated May 18 was put together on behalf of the parent alliance by Walla Walla attorney Sandy Garcia and community liaison Marisol Becerra. The women hand-delivered it to Jameson and Payne.

In the letter, parents of high school students requested a meeting with administrators to discuss their grievances and to plan for change.

Those parents and others were ready to hear answers from Payne and Jameson Wednesday. While interpreters from Spokane International Translation services facilitated the conversation as needed, high school freshman Mayra Campa began with a compilation of student concerns and stories.

Mayra said students feel they are being denied a First Amendment right to speak Spanish outside of the classrooms and feel religiously discriminated against when Catholic rosaries are taken away from Latino students at school. She described the “shut down” that came from Jameson over the request to start a Latino club, even when students made it clear such a club would be inclusive.

“All races would be welcome,” sophomore Daniela Saldana explained. “We’re not practicing racism.”

Daniela alleged the school’s dress code is more rigorously enforced for Latino students, noting Caucasian students are rarely “called out” for code infractions while Latino students — primarily girls — are continually sent to Jameson’s office for any violation of clothing rules.

“You are not treating us the same as other students,” she said, facing Jameson. “We are not asking this as a nice favor. It’s a requirement. You are taking away our rights.”

Daniela also said College Place High School students are allowed to bring pocket knives to school, a far more dangerous situation than a string of religious prayer beads, she added.

“Our parents are not being treated equally, either. They are not being included,” noted Ana Ramos, a junior.

Numerous examples of unequal treatment poured forth throughout the meeting. Rules that seem to come “out of thin air” only for Latino students and the way Latino students are spoken to by Jameson were just two of dozens of complaints.

Even school sports were put on the table. “Football is bigger than soccer. Football is the head at this school,” sophomore Stephanie Saldana said.

When asked for an example by Payne, the young woman described end-of-season achievement certificates that are handed out. Those for football players are printed on heavier card stock, while players in other sports get paper awards.

“And boys’ and girls’ soccer don’t get the water bottles like they do in football and basketball,” Saldana said.

Equal rights to learning

Parents and College Place residents listened patiently, many with folded arms, until their turns came to echo the students’ concerns and add more to the list.

“I am very ashamed this evening,” Cindy Gregoire told Payne and Jameson. “I live here, I voted for this school … I trusted the school board to put culturally aware people in leadership positions.”

She had not wanted to believe the rumors she’d heard could be true, that children were not being allowed to speak their native language in the halls or have a Latino club, said Gregoire, a retired educator who worked for about 25 years for Walla Walla Public Schools.

Gregoire told the Union-Bulletin this morning she taught in classrooms and had taken English as a Second Language classes from school to school, then spent her last 10 working years as the Walla Walla district’s bilingual coordinator.

“I was just so stunned,” she said today of hearing the long list of issues at College Place High School. “I am just so ashamed of the current situation. I am embarrassed. I feel so badly for the students and the parents. I think Mr. Payne and Mr. Jameson really need to think deeply if their unfair treatment is deliberate or out of ignorance. And I would really like to hear from the school board.”

At the meeting, Jose Gutierrez stood to address school administrators. As manager of a commercial kitchen operation, Gutierrez said, he oversees people from different backgrounds and cultures and finds the most important part of his job is treating people equally.

When kids in schools are not given equal treatment, that’s when school shootings happen, he said. “The biggest problem is when people get treated different, they find a way to show their anger.”

His job as a parent is to help his children at home, but the school must do the same during the day, Gutierrez said to Payne and Jameson.

Rules at school are important, Gutierrez said, “but we have to have rules that are for everybody. I expect the same thing for my son and my daughter.”

However, Gutierrez may decide to send his son to Walla Walla High School, given the atmosphere at College Place, he said, choking with emotion.

Mariela Rosas works for Children’s Home Society of Washington, facilitating the after school program at Valle Lindo agricultural worker housing. She’s heard the moms and dads discuss the burden their children bear in the College Place district, she told the superintendent and principal.

“I am hearing a lot of parents say they are going to take their kids to Wa-Hi,” she said. “I know these families very well. We’re going to be sure what they are asking is not a ‘favor.’ These are their rights.”

Rosas said she has worked in education for more than 40 years. “And more than that, I am a lawyer. I am here for my people,” she said, taking her seat to a robust round of applause.

Others spoke of the need for more translation help at the school, the desire to be looped in to events such as school dances so parents can serve as chaperones, and asked that the students speaking up Wednesday not be subjected to retaliation.

Allowing students to carry pocket knives was of high concern to many of the parents. One labeled personal knives “an accident waiting to happen,” while a mother brought copies of five emails she’s sent to Payne on the issue. She said she’s received no response.

“So do you know what the policy is about knives at Wa-Hi? I do, because I called, and they are considered weapons,” she said.

Payne said he remembered her emails.

“We will absolutely have the conversation about pocket knives,” he said, noting it will take a decision by the school board to change the policy.

Changes promised

The superintendent told those gathered that some of the information was reaching his ears for the first time, and he realizes more Spanish-speaking employees need to be brought on board.

“I appreciate the communication, and I am committed to making it better,” he said.

According to Payne that effort will include:

  • Students will be able to speak Spanish outside of classrooms without consequence.
  • A Latino club can be formed according to the policy and process already in place and listed on the district’s website.
  • Policies in question will be brought before the school board.
  • The student handbook will always be translated into Spanish going forward.
  • Processes will be better explained to students and parents.
  • A parent-student-community advisory group will be formed to be the “ears” of College Place schools for Payne.
  • Cultural responsiveness-training will be arranged for school board members and principals by an outside agency.

Jameson pointed out to the audience that he and Payne set forth five years ago to create the best high school in the Walla Walla Valley, and there is the chance to reclaim that.

“Those who work with me know, I love kids,” he said. “Do we make mistakes? Yes. This is the first time we’ve had a chance to talk.”

Despite an open-door policy, not many parents at this meeting have approached him, Jameson said, to which several people responded that the Latino parents feel as intimidated as their children do by Jameson’s attitude toward them.

Student Mayra Campa had one more question for her principal.

“When we came and asked for the Latino club, why didn’t you tell us about the process?” she asked.

That was a mistake, Payne replied on behalf of the district. “From now on we will.”

Sustainable change begins with this sort of communication and collaboration, he added. “We’re admitting today that we have blind spots.”

Leaving the meeting as the clock approached 9 p.m., Jose Gutierrez said he thinks parents were heard by the two administrators.

“I think they can make the changes, not because of the pressure tonight, but because they want to improve the school,” he said.

“But … how can you be unaware of so many things?”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.