COLLEGE PLACE — An alliance of Latino parents has hand delivered a letter to College Place Public Schools requesting immediate changes for their children.

The letter, addressed to High School Principal Kirk Jameson and district Superintendent Tim Payne, alleges Latino students at the high school receive different treatment than non-Latino students in a number of ways.

The parent group has asked the school district to have a meeting between parents, students and officials at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Payne said last week that although he lacks knowledge of the full list of concerns, he is eager to meet with the group.

Sending this sort of letter was not an easy decision for these parents, noted Walla Walla attorney Sandy Garcia, who is serving as the alliance’s legal representative and a spokeswoman.

“As Latinos, we’re traditionally not very confrontational,” she said. “We’re willing to wait and see.”

Marisol Becerra agrees, both as a parent and as liaison between the alliance and the school district.

While America’s current political climate has some Latino families worried about catching the public’s eye, the College Place High School situation demands action, Becerra said.

“It’s time we, as parents, come together,” she said. “I know families who are ready to go to a different school, but that doesn’t stop it.”

These families came together on a recent Tuesday evening to discuss what they see as a persistent, racist attitude at the high school. Nearly 50 people, including students, gathered to talk and agree upon what actions they want the school district to take.


A long list of issues

Moms and dads recounted times their children were chastised at school for speaking Spanish in the hallways. They spoke of students denied an opportunity to form an after-school Latino Club on campus, modeled after Latino clubs that meet at Walla Walla High School, Walla Walla University and Whitman College.

A hired translator turned Spanish into English while Becerra started the discussion.

“Parents, what do you think? We all have a voice,” she said, reminding the group it doesn’t need others to speak on their behalf.

The conversation began hesitantly, but soon stories and concerns were spilling forth.

“Our kids need to participate in those clubs,” Becerra said. “But our kids are not in those clubs.”

Such clubs, open to everyone, offer support to students and lead to great academic achievement, she and Garcia said.

Spanish-speaking parents said they have difficulty understanding the English-only communications from College Place High School. And at times there is insufficient bilingual staff at the school to help with translation, they told Becerra.

Federal and state laws require schools to provide language assistance to parents with limited English proficiency, Garcia said.

Several parents said they believe their kids are made to more rigidly adhere to the high school’s dress code than non-Latino students.

One mom spoke of how her daughter had left the district to attend school in Walla Walla after some College Place teachers suggested the mom throw out all the girl’s clothes.

“‘Because the boys were looking so much,’” she said, shaking her head as she recalled what was said.

Parents on that Tuesday said they’ve heard from their teens on issues ranging from being ridiculed by administration in front of others to being told they would not be successful in life to being forced to lift boxes of books as a disciplinary measure.

Students at the gathering spoke of not being allowed to display the rosaries important to their Catholic faith, saying Jameson has ruled the strings of prayer beads out as gang symbols.

“He should respect our religion,” a student told those at the meeting. “Other kids wear crucifixes.”

One woman said she hears some of the College Place High School staff are leaving for other jobs because of this and other problems. When reached Friday, Walla Walla Valley Education Association President Keith Swanson said union officials are aware of the situation and are taking it seriously.

“We are continuing to work behind the scenes with the district to find a resolution to the serious concerns that have been raised by students, parents, and by several of our members,” he said. “It would be inappropriate for us to comment any further at this time.”

The situation has been ongoing, one mother noted.

“Our kids have the same rights as every other child,” she said. “No one has said anything for three years. It’s about time.”

Supporting their children is vital, a father seconded. “They are the ones suffering.”


Parents ready to activate

Becerra and Garcia listened to it all, writing down the complaints and urging everyone to help narrow the focus of the letter going to Payne and Jameson.

“We have to be a community … we want equality. We want a meeting with these people,” Becerra said. “Let (Jameson) know this group has formed, and we are ready for action.”

Garcia grew up in farmworker housing here and was the first Latina to be sworn into the Washington State Bar Association in Walla Walla County in 2012. She later said it’s been wonderful to see parents and students empower themselves.

Garcia now works for the Northwest Justice Project. She has contacted the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the College Place High School Latino parents over possible violations of the federal Equal Access Act that gives all non-curricular student clubs the same level of access.

Vanessa Hernandez, youth policy director of ACLU of Washington, said her office has been in communication with parents here and “will be watching with interest as the situation develops.”

In 2017, Renae Stone said, Jameson told Stone’s daughter, then a freshman, she could not start a GSA — Gay and Straight Alliance — at College Place High School.

Stone sought help from GLSEN, a national organization formerly called Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network that advocates for civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

After hearing from GLSEN’s Washington state chapter, Superintendent Payne instructed Jameson to allow the GSA under the district’s policy addressing student-led clubs, according to correspondence from GLSEN.

Her daughter, however, left the district soon after, and the GSA did not get started, Stone said earlier this month.

Currently the high school has only co-curricular student clubs that correspond to classes being taught, such as the FFA that pairs with ag-science class, district officials confirmed.

Payne, speaking on his own and Jameson’s behalf, said last week he is a looking forward to getting more information when he meets with parents and students.

Since receiving the alliance’s letter, he learned the high school parent handbook was submitted too late this year to be translated into Spanish, Payne said.

“We are here to make sure that doesn’t happen twice,” he said.

College Place Public Schools serves its community, he said. “That means to have the community come in and share when they think things aren’t right.”

He’s hopeful about resolution, Payne added.

“That’s really my heart on the matter, is to bring people together and make things better,” he said.

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.