Local Students Meet with Civil Rights Veteran Fran O’Brien

  • Shown in this photo (clockwise from bottom) are Joey Teare, Fran O'Brien, Monica Houghton, Sarah Houghton, Katelyn Ciotto, Joey and Ben Houghton and Katie Teare in conversation about civil disobedience, first amendment rights, the consequences of protest and the role of protests in the history of America and other countries.

    Shown in this photo (clockwise from bottom) are Joey Teare, Fran O'Brien, Monica Houghton, Sarah Houghton, Katelyn Ciotto, Joey and Ben Houghton and Katie Teare in conversation about civil disobedience, first amendment rights, the consequences of protest and the role of protests in the history of America and other countries.

By Patric Hedlund

Civil rights movement veteran Fran O’Brien held a thoughtful discussion with a group of students and parents on Sunday, Feb. 20.

The group discussed tough personal decisions about standing up for justice and civil rights. O’Brien is a soft-spoken teacher who has lived in Frazier Park for 34 years. Two books tell of her work in Mississippi during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. That effort was to end lynchings and terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan in the South, to end the institution of segregation and to gain the right to vote for all citizens, regardless of race [see the third in our series this week, on page 12, about O’Brien’s meeting with Martin Luther King].

The students who gathered to meet her had all participated in recent peaceful demonstrations at El Tejon School or Frazier Mountain High School. They had requested an apology from new administrators for the treatment of a bus driver who has been a respected friend of Mountain Community students for 14 years.

“Giving respect earns respect,” said Katelyn Ciotto, a junior. Sarah Houghton, 12 said in an earlier interview that driver Chuy Saldaña treated the children with respect and they responded in kind.

The high school demonstration on Thursday, Jan. 27 turned into a protest against the actions of the high school principal and the superintendent who forbade students from explaining their concerns to news media during the demonstration.

In the discussion with Fran O’Brien at The Mountain Enterprise office, students said they are concerned that school officials do not always behave lawfully and may be uninformed.

Students asked, sincerely, if the authority of the Constitution of the United States stops at the boundary of the school campus. They asked if school policy needs to adhere to federal law and the Bill of Rights. They also asked why members of the Board of Trustees of El Tejon Unified School District do not provide leadership for administrators on these matters.

Two parents and Joey Teare, who is student representative to the ETUSD Board of Trustees, observed that ETUSD trustees appear less willing to listen to community members or to answer questions recently.

“These are not big schools like those in Bakersfield. We are a different community here. This is more like a family,” Monica Houghton said. “We care about fairness,” both students and parents said.

Ciotto said that she would like to explain to new superintendent Katie Kleier, Counselor Mike Stroh and Principal Dan Penner that treating the concerns of young people in a dismissive manner is not a formula for gaining their respect.

“I feel as if the person who is administering penalties doesn’t know the law himself,” Ciotto said. “I asked if the First Amendment applies on campus and Mr. Penner would not answer,” she said. “It was unfair of the superintendent to take Associated Student Body officers inside for a discussion instead of holding a dialogue with all the students about the concerns that led to the demonstration,” she added.

Joey Teare said that Kleier did not tell the ASB students anything very useful. “She repeated many times that ‘Chuy [Saldaña] was a substitute driver and they didn’t have a contract with him,’” he said. Students and parents on Sunday said that was “a dodge,” a means to sidestep the real issue, which is students’ concerns about treating people fairly.

Joey Teare said he decided to participate in the demonstration “because it is part of our country’s history; it is a right.” He created signs for the demonstration, and was a spokesperson for student concerns. He was told by Principal Penner that he could not talk to a television reporter who asked for an interview.

Students said they would like to invite administrators and trustees to meet with students and legal consultants to review why district policy appears to conflict with federal law.

They also said that favortism by the administration at the high school is a source of ongoing concern to both parents and students.

Students said the high school principal is arbitrary in dispensing penalties to those who demonstrated, adding that “the school is not following its own published rules.” The FMHS handbook makes it clear that “a cut and an unexcused absence are different,” they said. According to the student handbook, academic penalties are more severe for students who “cut.” The assumption is that those who cut class are “partying” and avoiding schoolwork.

Parents who called the school to say their children had stayed out of class for personal reasons with their parents’ approval, as an unexcused absence, were told by FMHS office staff that they had been instructed to write “cut” on the admit slips of all students who had demonstrated.

Joey Houghton, a senior, said he has never cut class in four years and was insulted to have his concern for fairness for the district’s personnel be treated as if he’d ditched irresponsibly.

Ciotto said she did not enter class on January 21 but, “Mr. Penner said that if I rode the bus, then it was as if I had gone to class and then cut, so I had ‘cut class.’” But other students who drove themselves to the school, then stayed out for the day during the demonstration, were also told they had ‘cut.’

Calls to Principal Penner for comment about these statements were not returned. Office staff said Penner told them to “tell The Mountain Enterprise that he is not allowed to talk with you.” When this reporter called the district office at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 22, we were told that the superintendent “has left for the day.”

Students and parents said that if they organize a meeting to invite the trustees and administrators to join them for a conversation about their concerns, they fear that trustees and administrators might not come.

Fran O’Brien, 68 said she has observed over the years that “change doesn’t happen in one step. It takes many small steps, until one day, things are different and no one can remember exactly when things changed.”

When asked if she would make the choice to work in the civil rights movement again, she said with no hesitation, “Yes, I would.” Students at the meeting agreed they, too, would make the same decision.

Students said they want to work toward a school district based on respect and dialogue, where people listen to each other, understand the law and where employees and students are treated fairly.

This is part of the February 25, 2011 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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