Student-led forum questions District 2 candidates on Trump policies, bullying and safety
Mike Szymanski | February 12, 2017
High school students moderated a forum of the three candidates in the District 2 school board race on Friday night in front of a capacity crowd of 200, with 100 more students waiting to get in.
The candidates were asked how they plan to battle Trump administration policies, help underperforming and underprivileged youth, increase the use of restorative justice and deal with threats against LGBTQ and undocumented students.
“I’m terrified about this,” said moderator Maria Garcia, rehearsing at the podium an hour before the forum began at the Cal State LA Student Union Theatre. The senior from Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools (who is not related to Mónica García, who is running for re-election) said it was important for students to be involved in the school board elections.
“School board members will see that young people have needs and have questions and that they care,” said Maria, who urged students if they can’t yet vote because of their age, then educate parents, friends and neighbors about the candidates and get them to vote. “If you are scared of the recent elections, then you are in the right place.”
Maria practiced reading her script, and by the time the capacity crowd of 200, mostly students, arrived, she was calm. She controlled the room and even warned the audience multiple times about not reacting to the candidates.
Three other students from schools in the district sat across from the three candidates and asked questions. Christian Bonilla, who dressed up formally with a bow tie, along with Yecenia Perez and Joshua Valdivieso took turns asking questions of the candidates, then a few questions were read from the audience.
• Read profiles of all three candidates in the District 2 race.
It was the first face-off of the District 2 candidates before the March 7 primary election and the first of three student-run candidate forums planned by United Way of Greater Los Angeles. Each forum for the district 2, 5 and 6 races is preceded by a College Readiness Fair with resources for undocumented students, voter registration, scholarship opportunities and more. Attendees were also given the Parent Engagement Toolkit, and the first 150 attending were offered free food.
Lisa Alva and Carl. J. Petersen are challenging incumbent Mónica García for the seat. The rules of the forum gave 30 seconds of rebuttal time to any candidate who was personally attacked. Petersen was the only one who launched into attacks on García, a few times citing stories and quotes from LA School Report.
One question asked what the biggest roadblock was in implementing the School Climate Bill of Rights, which seeks to establish a positive climate on campuses.
“Today I will say that our budget is the biggest roadblock,” García said. She pointed out that as school board president she helped cut $2.6 billion from the budget and brought forward the School Climate Bill of Rights. She talked about reducing the number of suspensions and bringing restorative justice to every campus. She added, “Today we are dealing with wanding on campuses, and we can solve these issues with all of us sitting together and learning together.”
Alva talked about learning of teachers’ concerns at a recent UTLA House of Representatives meeting. “Teachers said there were fewer deans and campus aides and more being taken away, and they are dealing with many explosive and dangerous situations” when there are one or two disruptive students in a class.
Petersen pointed out that the district dealt with suspensions by simply saying, “’You can’t suspend’, and that hasn’t fixed the problem.” He pointed out how his son failed an English class but wasn’t given a chance to re-take the class and summer school wasn’t available. He said his son was unable to catch up. He added, “We have contributed to schools’ prison pipeline instead of ending it.”
The candidates were asked how they plan to stop LGBTQ bullying in schools.
García talked about the discrimination she faced as the daughter of immigrants growing up in East LA and programs she championed in schools creating safe spaces and suicide prevention. “It’s about our youth, telling us that they want gender neutral bathrooms on one campus, or making safe space for conversations. The youth are leading the way on all social issues,” she said.
Alva said that curbing the use of cell phones could stop bullying. She said, “Bullying is a problem that is pandemic. A child with a cell phone has a device that can be very, very harmful.” Alva said suspending the bullies is not the answer. “We have to restore the bully and find out why it’s happening. It comes from a place of pain.”
Petersen said the district is being a bully by “throwing good teachers in teacher jail and forcing children with severe special ed needs into general education settings and doing away with special ed centers. That’s another form of bullying.”
As far as protecting undocumented students, Petersen said, “The school district should fight at the local level all things from the Trump administration.”
Alva asked if any in the audience were undocumented Dreamers, and about 25 students raised their hands. “Our governor and this district have promised you are safe and your parents are safe and no one has to leave home because you are born on the wrong side of the line. We will protect you.”
García defended her decade on the school board and talked about how the district started building new schools. “There are choices for families, and LA Unified now has a whole lot of ways to help kids get to the finish line,” she said.
Unlike other candidate forums so far, the issue of charter schools didn’t come up. In his opening statement, Petersen said, “When we talk about charters, they are in the end trying to drain the district. I have gone after charters for not following the rules of enrollment.”
Alva said, “We cannot afford to waste time with education. I know what at-risk looks like, and we need smaller classes and safety and discipline and we need to think out of the box.”
García said, “I want to interrupt discrimination and classicism and sexism and build a space for greater achievement. We are about a grassroots authentic solution.”
After the forum, all three candidates said they felt good about how they got their messages across and appreciated the student questions. Student board member Karen Calderon, from Hamilton High, attended with friends on a rainy Friday night.
“The youth voice is lost in policy and decision-making by adults who don’t always understand the needs of students,” said Elmer Roldan, United Way’s director of education programs and policy. “This is an opportunity for students to speak directly with candidates and share their concerns.”
District 4’s forum is Wednesday, Feb. 15, at LA City College’s student union at 855 N. Vermont Ave.
District 6’s forum is Wednesday, March 1, at LA Mission College at 13356 Eldridge Ave. in Sylmar.