People of Color Say Comal ISD Packed the Room with Whites at Sept. 10 Board Meeting
Parents and students of color who showed up at Thursday night’s Comal ISD board of trustees meeting to talk about diversity said they were forced instead to stand at the back of the room by white parents and athletes who arrived early to fill seats and defend President David Drastata from criticism that he is racist.
After the meeting parent Morena Hockley, who serves on Canyon High School’s (CHS) new diversity council, said the district restricted the time allotted to speakers during the public forum and that Vice President Jason York decided who would speak, a violation of the Texas Association of School Board rules for meetings.
She said right after the meeting she emailed Drastata and Kim a 1950s Life Magazine photo of African Americans seated at the back of a segregated bus.
“The board meeting tonight was deeply disappointing,” she said. “I had let you know that people were coming so you would be ready to address the issue. We brought students and families directly to you so you could hear their stories and let them know your commitment to bringing change. Instead, the seats were packed with your white supporters. Every single person of color was made to stand in the back of the room or in the hall outside the room. Not one of the high schoolers offered his seat to his elders. Do you even notice what the room looked like?”
Drastata, who also is president of CHS’ athletic booster club and serves on the board of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, came under fire on Aug. 16 for calling COVID-19 “the China virus” in an email to parents. Hockley, who is the mother of two CHS soccer players of Asian descent, described his comments as a “gut punch” in subsequent interviews with newspaper and TV reporters.
Since then she has worked with Drastata to find a middle ground, but now doubts the district’s commitment to dealing with racism at all of its campuses.
White parents who spoke in support of Drastata at Thursday’s meeting described him as a dedicated advocate for students and a tireless parent volunteer who doesn’t deserve to be condemned for making one mistake.
“They walked the walk,” a woman whose first name is Christine (Editor’s Note: her last name, along with those of several other speakers, was inaudible on video) said of Drastata and his wife. “In a high school as large as Canyon, diversity is a given. Who among us is perfect?”
Nicole, the mother of two juniors at Canyon High School, said Drastata has the utmost integrity and honesty.
“The choice of words was not acceptable but actions speak louder than words,” she said. “…one comment should not overshadow all of the good he has done.”
A parent named Gina who belongs to CHS’ athletic booster club asked for grace and patience for Drastata, who she said has taken responsibility for his actions and asked for forgiveness.
“These are all signs of good leadership,” she said.
However, Hockley and others said they were disturbed the district isn’t addressing their concerns about diversity in its schools and requested that CHS also take action against Ag Science teacher Lance Jonas for his August Facebook post demanding that Hockley “go back to where you came from” if she didn’t like Drastata’s remark.
Hockley, who is a former bilingual teacher-of-the-year and Houston ISD assistant principal, said at the meeting that administrators aren’t doing enough for students of color even though an estimated 40-percent of CHS students are of Hispanic descent.
“I’m here for kids who don’t have teachers or administrators who look like them or look like people in their families, I’m here for the kids, whose names are mispronounced by teachers, I know education is the key to breaking down barriers,” she said.
At the close of the public comments session, Drastata thanked both sides for bringing their concerns to the board, a move that is unusual since board members and even county commissioners are not supposed to acknowledge public comments during a meeting.
“I want to thank everybody who came out tonight to address their opinions on all sides,” he said. “As a school board and a district, that commentary helps us to get better and improve. It’s a hallmark of what we believe we stand for as a school district.
“The ultimate goal is transparency and we want to thank you all so much for coming out and being a part of the democratic process that exemplifies what we think will continue to help us grow and continue to work toward achieving our ultimate objective – to be the premier independent school district in the state of Texas.”
“It Was Awful”
Dr. Jessica Edwards, a New Braunfels physician who is African American, also spoke at Thursday’s meeting. She told trustees another basketball player left fried chicken in her stepson’s locker at CHS.
She suggested the district hire a diversity manager with enough cultural competency to understand the needs students of color and also hire more African Americans. According to statistics she presented to trustees, African-American children who have African American teachers are more likely to attend college.
Afterward, Edwards described the meeting as “awful.”
“They had people lined up and ready to defend (Drastata),” she said. “They categorized all of the comments as for or against him and they had only like seven people speak instead of allotting the full 30 minutes. They were expecting a crowd. I got there at 5:30 p.m. and it was already full. Black people got there after all of his supporters were there.”
A teacher who works in Comal ISD said she stood in the back of the room with seven students and four parents, also African American.
The meeting began at 6 p.m. Parents who arrived at 5:15 p.m. said the meeting room was already full. Olivia Weisinger, an administrator on the Open Comal Schools Safely Facebook page, said the district didn’t open doors at a previous meeting until 5:45 p.m.
Morena said Drastata told her he asked York to decide who would speak, and that York decided to divide speakers into two groups, pro-Drasta and anti-Drasta instead of considering parents and students who were there to talk about diversity issues.
She said she was allowed to speak because her husband Andy signed in to talk about “racist teacher” and was lumped into the “anti-Drastata” category.
Kate Fraser, who livestreamed the meeting on Facebook, said administrators used part of the 30 minutes allotted to speakers to let a white student express his appreciation for the opportunity to attend school in person.
“I’m glad he was given the opportunity to speak,” she said in a Facebook post. “I wish the other students present had been afforded the same opportunity.”
Steve Stanford, Comal ISD’s executive director of Communications, clarified in an email that the board allows 30 minutes for public comment. In situations where a significant number of individuals want to speak, the board will ask groups to chose speakers to represent their point of view.
He said that public-comment participants get to decide which of them speaks before the board; the board does not choose who speaks and who doesn’t.
“While this does not allow every person who signed up to speak before the board, it does allow the viewpoints represented to be heard,” he said. “Also, if speakers bring written remarks they can leave them with the board.”
He said seating is on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Parent Asks for Diversity Training
Susan Allison, the mother of three Comal ISD students, told trustees at the meeting that she knows, from personal experience — her son was on the receiving end of a racial slur while attending Churchhill Middle School — that administrators dismiss racist remarks by redefining them as profanity.
“You will continue to fail at taking any type of stand and these incidents will keep occurring,” she said. “I am asking for more than two-sentence apologies. I am asking for you to recognize the impact these actions are having on your Black and brown students and stop focusing on the intent of the transgressor. I am asking for diversity training districtwide and an extensive examination of school policy that doesn’t protect your students from discrimination. It certainly didn’t protect my son.”
Students Speak Out
Abrianna Villegas, who is African American and also of Puerto Rican descent, attended CHS last year before transferring to Davenport High School for the 2020-21 school year.
She showed up to speak at the meeting but didn’t understand the district’s process for registering as a speaker.
“I wanted to be there on the podium,” she said. “‘Hey, look at me, this is a person of color.'”
In the statement she planned to read, Villegas described an incident where a teacher told her to take a look at an image left on her computer by a fellow student.
“When I went to my computer I expected it to be like a picture of a Juul or something stupid like that but it was something much worse,” she said. “He had left a picture of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy. I got up angry and extremely embarrassed so I went straight to his classroom and told him how I felt. He began apologizing profusely and saying how he now realizes it wasn’t a joke or anything to play around with. Afterward, I went back to my classroom but the burning sensation of everybody staring at me made me cry, and I ran to the bathroom.”
Villegas suggested the district hire more teachers, counselors, nurses and coaches of color who could support her at Canyon High School.
Madeline “Maddie” English
Due to lack of time, Hockley and others submitted other statements from students.
One of them was from Madeleine English, now majoring in bilingual education at Texas State University, who graduated from CHS in 2019. There, she founded and served as president of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).
In her statement to the board of trustees, English recalled receiving Instagram messages suggesting that she kill herself, and hearing teachers “belittle those with anxiety.”
“I remember complaints from teachers who didn’t support the space we created for LGBTQ+ youth, and I remember feeling like no one would believe me if I brought these to light,” she said. “There is a long list of stories that I, and many others, remember as being disrespectful and blatantly hateful.
“…What I am asking from you today is to move forward in a mindful and unbiased way in order to create a safer environment for our students, educators and staff,” English said. “I am asking you to look around you and see the diversity within your district and consider your most vulnerable in your decisions. I am asking that you listen to your students and not dismiss them as being too young to truly know what is going on…Rise to the challenge. Because if you don’t, our students will suffer.”
In a statement, Ana Fuentes, who graduated from CHS in June and now attends the University of Texas at Austin, said she wanted to wear a Black Lives Matter face mask when she walked across the stage to receive her diploma.
“As the graduation was being livestreamed, those in charge of the videography made it clear that they were going to avoid me and my mask at all costs,” she said. “I then took off the mask when it came to walking the stage. As I walked the stage, I raised my right fist in the air as a sign of solidarity. Of course, it was perceived as highly inappropriate by the video company and got censored. I used that night to demonstrate that I, as a young Latinx woman, see the pain that the Black community is going through.
“Although I proved my point that we, as BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) students, will continue to be disregarded by CISD, my family was completely torn by the fact that my 13 years in the Comal ISD system was reduced into a two-second clip that then pans over Canyon Stadium,” Fuentes said. “The next day, I met with Mr. Corbee Wunderlich and I was told that there would be an investigation as to why the video company did what they did. However, I was simply asking for both CHS and Comal ISD to take ownership of what happened instead of brushing it under the rug…but the same day that I met with the director of Secondary Education, I spoke to Mr. Dustin Davisson, current principal of CHS on the phone. As if the first act of censorship wasn’t enough, I was asked to take down a post I had made about it on Twitter as I was, and I quote, ‘tarnishing CHS’s name.'”
Fuentes said the lack of repercussions for Jonas’ statement demonstrates the disregard Comal ISD has for students of color.
“This kind of hatred has already infested your schools, and your silence and lack of action simply reinforces such behavior,” she said.
Hope for the Future?
In an interview, Hockley said attended the very first meeting of CHS’ diversity council on Friday morning.
She said Davisson, Drastata, Davis, another assistant principal, and eight students met to outline future steps for improving diversity at CHS.
A student on JOLT, which represents Hispanic students, read a statement asking Davisson why the district has not taken action against Jonas.
Davisson said he couldn’t discuss the matter because it was an ‘HR’ issue but assured the student something has been done about the teacher’s Facebook post.
Another student on a Zoom call asked Davisson to make a statement to students and parents to let them know the issue has been addressed.
After listening to students, Hockley said Davisson agreed to do a better job of communicating with the campus community in the future.
Key issues to be addressed on CHS’ campus are including more classes about diversity (eg African-American studies), diversity training for teachers, and communicating with non-English speaking parents.
Villegas said she plans to attend the trustees’ October board meeting to make sure her voice is heard.
“We’ll be back,” she said. “We most definitely will be back.”
Edwards said she remains undeterred by the events of Thursday’s meeting.
“We can’t focus on the short term,” she said. “We have to play the long game and systematically take control of the board and replace members with each election, to create a board that will address diversity.”
To see a video of last night’s board of trustees meeting, click HERE.
Please read our commenting rules before posting.