by Sasha Ryu
On Wed., Jun. 3, hundreds of demonstrators marched down Los Gatos Boulevard to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. From start to finish, the two-hour protest remained peaceful; however, protestors and spectators alike filled the event with fierce passion and frustration. Many of these heightened emotions seemed to stem from a controversy which surfaced as the march was coming to a close: The question of why LGHS turned down the organizers’ request to host the end of the rally on the school’s front lawn.
Earlier in the morning, school officials and students from the Unconditionally Positive leadership program met outside of the school to create a chalk mural, writing phrases like, “Justice for George Floyd” and “LGHS Condemns Racism” on the school’s front sidewalk. Although most of the UP members left campus to walk alongside the rest of the community, the administrators stayed on the front lawn, waiting to greet the passersby.
As the crowd marched down High School Ct., most of the interactions between the protestors and staff members didn’t extend beyond energetic whistles and friendly waves. However, later in the day, one attendee confronted the onlooking members of staff, criticizing the administrators for their lack of meaningful action and, more specifically, for refusing to host the end of the protest on campus. Once news of the school’s decision got around, the atmosphere quickly shifted, and the crowd – consisting mainly of LGHS students – began to boo and chant in fierce disapproval of the administration.
Rumors soon began to circulate that the local police department stated the front lawn was the “safest place to end the march,” provoking further outrage. These claims, however, would later prove to be misguided. When asked to comment, the Los Gatos Monte Sereno Chief of Police Peter Decena stated, “None of us told anyone that LGHS was the safest place to end the march. In my mind, there was very little difference between LGHS & the Civic Center in terms of safety.”
Although certain details of the decision became exaggerated and fabricated, one thing was for certain: The LGHS administration was willing to show its support for the Black Lives Matter movement with chalk murals and public statements, but protestors still felt as though they were not being heard.
Although one can never know their true intentions, it seems the school’s ultimate decision about the protest end location was less political and more based on legality. According to the district, local officials, local law enforcement, and LGHS Head Principal Kristina Grasty, it appears that, given the timing of the situation, it would not have been possible to approve the protestors’ request to finish the protest on the front lawn.
When asked to provide a timeline of the events that led up to the school’s decision, Principal Grasty stated, “[One of the organizers] contacted me via email fewer than 24 hours before the protest pressuring that the school host it. I respectfully responded to her email by calling her on the phone and profusely praised her efforts. She is a wonderful person, and I truly admire her leadership. The mission of racial equity and standing up to fight injustice is one I sincerely believe in, from my deepest core values.”
Despite supporting the cause, though, previously-planned events forced the administration to turn down the request to end the march on LGHS’s front lawn.
One of the biggest obstacles standing in the way was the school-wide pick-up/drop-off scheduled to take place at the same time on the same day, in addition to Santa Clara County’s strict social distancing rules. According to Principal Grasty, “It was a necessary process to collect instructional materials to be able to… provide adequate learning materials for all starting in August 2020. We spent hours documenting the process to get it approved. It followed all SIP guidelines, safety protocols, and we were able to get it approved well in advance… It involved a lot of coordination and hours of time by our staff. Our staff who were scheduled to work at the school that day were assigned to work solely [based] on that process. We didn’t have additional resources assigned to running or hosting a protest rally that morning.”
After contacting Principal Grasty, El Gato News spoke individually with Tony Palma, Director of Capital Projects, Facilities, M&O, and Technology, and LGSUHSD Superintendent Mike Grove. Both of their statements confirmed what Grasty had said.
Mr. Palma: “All of our district facilities are still closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and all on-campus facility rentals/use requests have been suspended through June. We hope to start opening up parts of our campuses now that the County Health Department has allowed more flexibility, but the school sites are still working out what that will look like for this summer.”
Dr. Grove: “This decision was made primarily due to a long-planned and important school activity (pick up/drop off) scheduled for the same time as the march along High School Court, immediately adjacent to the LGHS front lawn. Given the very short amount of notice given prior to the march, the uncertainty regarding the size of the march, and the preparation and staffing that would be required to simultaneously host the end of the march and the previously scheduled school event safely, we agreed that a nearby location that wasn’t already hosting a simultaneous event would be the best endpoint. There were also other considerations we discussed including the restrictions on public gatherings under current orders from Santa Clara County Public Health and our ability to adequately support the event on short notice. Our schools are closed and we have minimal staff working and those staff who are working were already committed to supporting the previously planned school event.”
After considering the reasons behind the school’s decision, it was still uncertain who, specifically, made the final decision about refusing to end the protest on campus. According to Mr. Palma, “School sites make the final decision about all campus facility uses, while the district office provides guidelines based on board policy.”
Los Gatos Monte Sereno Police Department (LGMSPD) Chief Peter Decena also confirmed that the LGHS administration worked with local government and law enforcement to find an alternative to the front lawn.
“The role of the Police Department in these types of situations is to support the community’s right to protest in a peaceful manner, while ensuring that acts of violence, looting and destruction of property do not occur,” Decena stated. “To accomplish this, we try to work with the protest organizers to offer suggestions that will keep everyone safe. In this case, the decision to use either the Los Gatos High School or Civic Center lawn as the end point of the protest rather than Town Plaza Park came at the very last minute… We facilitated conversations between the protest organizers and LGHS staff, but of course the ultimate decision to allow use of school grounds lies with LGHS and the school district. They made a decision to not allow the use of the LGHS lawn for a number of reasons and the Police Department fully supported that decision. Ultimately, the use of the Civic Center lawn worked out just fine and it was a fitting end to a very successful and peaceful protest.”
When asked to comment, Los Gatos Councilwoman Marico Sayoc stated, “I was not in direct conversation with the school… so I can’t contribute to what actually happened. [However,] by the end of the day on Tuesday, the organizers needed to know where the march would end to convey to their supporters. I told the organizers to end at the Civic Center. Subsequently, (after the protest) I had a direct conversation with Principal Grasty and, during our conversation, we both agreed where the march ended and the speakers spoke was the right place. Our joint goal (between Principal Grasty and only as myself as a community member) is to support the students who took courageous initiative, the community as a whole, and one another. The net result was very positive, garnering more widespread support for the need for change and that together we will engage with our community to address the racial injustices our residents shared on Wednesday.”
Although they defended their final decision, Principal Grasty and Superintendent Grove wrote a joint letter in which they took responsibility for handling the situation in such a way that created frustration and confusion. In the letter, Grasty and Grove admit, “In hindsight, perhaps the best way to have handled this situation would have been for representatives from our school and district to have met with representatives of the Town, LGMSPD, and with the march organizers as one group early on in the planning process so that we could work together to problem-solve and support the march and to promote clear communication among all. Unfortunately, we weren’t brought into the conversation until the afternoon before the morning that the march was to take place.
We are all extremely proud of the young people in our community who organized and participated in this protest march and we are completely supportive of their message. We look forward to working together with our community partners to develop additional strategies to combat racism in our community and to create a school and community in which all people feel safe and respected.”
(Additional research provided by Staff Writer Maddie Dewhirst)