Students from West County High School (WCHS) have voiced their concerns over two plaques at the school they believe promote racism and xenophobia. An April 13 West Sonoma County High School District Board of Trustees meeting included an agenda item about the plaque removal request. Public comments focused on concerns regarding what the plaques may represent.
Students say they believe the plaques portray racial insensitivity, echoing comments made in March by the West County High Activists Instagram.
“Have you seen these plaques around West County High School? These were donated by the Native Sons of the Golden West, who advocated for white supremacy in the early 20th Century. Considering the year in which these plaques were installed, their ‘Truth, Liberty, and Toleration’ being advertised do not reflect the truths, liberties, and tolerations we stand for today in modern society,” the post by the club read.
“A report by a community member was submitted to the school administration in January, but these plaques have not been addressed by them. We ask you to please raise awareness at school regarding these racist and xenophobic plaques and demand administration to acknowledge them and address them,” it followed.
One plaque is in front of the school and the other in front of the main gymnasium. According to its website, the Native Sons of the Golden West works as a historic preservation organization.
WCHS senior KatieAnn Nguyen wrote on the school news website on March 14 about the background of the organization.
“They are quoted to have said that ‘California was given by God to a white people, and with God’s strength we want to keep it as He gave it to us’ What this means is that during their history, the group perceived preserving the history of California as keeping it as a state for ‘a white people,’ excluding all ethnic minorities, most evidently Japanese Americans,” her piece read.
“They were a group that approved a resolution to exclude all ‘Orientals’ from California. For them, they were simply taking on the white man’s burden, the idea that white men were the ones responsible for ‘liberating, educating, and civilizing’ indigenous people. For Japanese Americans and other ethnic minorities, it was outright hate and discrimination,” Nguyen wrote.
The plaque at the front entrance of the school was donated on Dec. 5, 1935 and the plaque at the entrance of the gym was donated on Dec. 12, 1954.
Nguyen asked in her article whether the ideals that were once beneficial to the campus are ideals that should be honored today.
School board president Patrick Nagle said at the meeting he researched the organization and had a conversation with a representative from Native Sons of the Golden West. He said he asked for more details through email but did not receive a response from the Native Sons organization.
“And then when I asked for a more in depth conversation, they didn’t actually return that email. So you know we have a process and it was important to put on the agenda to kind of start the process of what we are going to do to serve our speakers,” he said.
The board intends to have the situation come back as an action item. Dylan Peña Pérez, who is part of the activist club and serves as student representative on the board, said they received a message by a community member through Instagram, a report had been provided to the board regarding the plaques by Campus Supervisor David Cary. Peña Pérez and Nguyen met with Nagle on March 18 to discuss it.
Cary was one of the first public commenters and said he submitted the request because what the plaques represent are not compatible with the district’s current values. Cary asked for a schedule for the next step and asked if he could help with the investigation.
Marilú Saldaña, a counselor and mentor adviser for the Anti Racist Student Body Committee also spoke at the school board meeting. Saldaña said the plaques represent a racist community environment.
A racist promposal occurred a weekend before the meeting, which exacerbated concerns the plaques represent to the speakers.
“This is huge, it’s a much higher cost to keep this on this campus, it will continue to be a reminder to our students and for the future students. I am going to ask the board to make a decision in May to remove these,” Saldaña said. “I think the issues are much larger than just the plaque. It is what it represents to the students and the families. And in addition, we have to start healing and there’s been too much damage already. I am asking you to please make the right decision for our students, the community and for the ethnic minority students on this campus and the staff. We need to form a united community because we’re not united and it’s very divided,” she said.
Nguyen spoke as well during the meeting and brought up the concerns of the promposal. Nguyen is of Asian descent and highlighted the reasons why the plaques concern her. “We have seen last Friday the events that have unfolded, you cannot tell me to my face that is not keeping these facts normalized. I will not want to be part of a school that has those factors. That is not something I want to insert into my school. School is supposed to be a safe space,” Nguyen said. “By keeping these active, you are outrightly, telling ethnic minorities, this is not your campus because those plaques are symbolic of the racist history.”
Nguyen said in her article the plaques are symbolic of anti-Japanese inclusion into society.
“And that is just painful. As an ethnic minority in this group it is already hard to be heard and is already hard to be represented on this campus. Please don’t make it harder for us. Because we deserve to have a safe space. These facts, they do not do that. They undermine us, they make us feel hurt,” she said.
Other students spoke against the plaques such as Junior Solange Anjeh, who spoke of racist remarks her and classmates have endured at school. “It’s not enough to punish, teaching is as important if not more so. It’s not allowing certain students who are at fault of racist behavior like this, but also staff and teachers who cannot report and communicate. We all must be held accountable and superintendent Eric must be accountable for your lack of complete refusal,” she said.
Student Mariana Rodriguez got emotional while speaking and broke down as she spoke also on the racist environment she has experienced. “I don’t want anything to do with the school that represents or the thought of this kind of behavior,” Rodriguez said.
Once public comments ended, Peña Pérez, expressed his own concerns regarding the way the school board handled the situation. “I do have to say that I’m a little concerned that no one in the community did anything or talked about it. Since the topic was first brought by David Cary, this topic was brought up last semester. And to think that it wasn’t until Katie and I talked about it and made spread awareness regarding this issue, that the board decided to actually put in an agenda item, I feel like this is a reflection of how the community and the school board as a whole has normalized racism on campus,” he said.
“You guys were elected as leaders for the community to make change. But I don’t think that you actually make change until it is brought to light and until people start bothering you. I just have to share that I’m very disappointed with everyone here. And I’m really proud of my peers for speaking out today,” Peña Pérez said.
Nagle responded to Peña Pérez by saying as soon as the issue was brought up, he put it on the agenda. “As a board member, we don’t live on this campus. We’re community members, we’re not here. So if people don’t bring it to our attention, as you said, well, we don’t know about it,” Nagle said.
“We want to help, we want to make change. But if no one’s talking to us about it, then we don’t know we need to do so. So at this point, I think the direction that we need to take is to bring it back as an action item on the main agenda,” he said.
Peña Pérez responded he was not happy with the response and said it was not the student body’s obligation to let issues be known. “I feel like if you did not hear about this before, from the students, it’s because you haven’t created a bridge where they can trust you with this information. I don’t think that we are responsible for that trust,” he said.
Jennie Bruneman, a board member and director of facilities and bond construction management said she was going to take responsibility for not bringing the issue to the board beforehand.
“I was notified of this in January. A lot of things were happening in January and an immense amount of pressure on staff to pivot and adjust. I did respond to these emails and told him that I would put this on the list of things to talk about with Mr. Evans, and so I want to apologize to our community,” Bruneman said.
“It’s not right for me to have things get so insurmountable; there was a lot going on and I’m not asking for forgiveness, just understanding that this was on the list of things you have to address,” she said.
A previous version of this article misspelled David Cary’s name “Carey.” His name is spelled Cary.