Education Lab

Laton students walk out in protest, say school administration is ‘too white’

Dozens of Laton High School students walked out of class in protest on Thursday, some saying the school administration is “too white” and does not fairly represent the diverse student body.

Students protested in the school district office parking lot, holding signs that said “Our voice matters” and “We want a say in our education,” demanding to speak with Laton Unified Superintendent Larry Audet – who would not leave his office or allow students in.

In addition to calls for diversity on the school board and among administrators, students voiced concerns about a high teacher turnover rate and policies they say are outdated and hinder their learning experience, including a strict dress code. The protest was sparked by the firing of a well-liked Latino teacher.

“We feel oppressed and underrepresented. When we try to speak up, they don’t listen,” said student Monica Velazquez. “When the majority of the school board is white and male, I don’t see us being represented. And Laton is just a small piece of that problem.”

Students barricaded Audet’s car in the district office parking lot after he refused to hear their concerns. Four Fresno County sheriff’s deputies showed up to the protest and threatened over an intercom to arrest students if they did not leave the parking lot. The officers said they were responding to reports of vandalism but later said the call was unfounded. Deputies said students have a right to protest, but asked them to return to class.

Audet declined to speak to a reporter.

“We think this is about racial injustice,” said student Amber Mendes, 17. “The school board is mostly white, and they’re just not representing our community at all.”

Laton High student body president Austin Minter said Thursday’s protest was about many different things, but mostly a call for change and a call for students to be heard.

“It’s hard for me to acknowledge these issues because I’m white as well, but a majority of our students are Latinos who suffer from economical injustices and are not equally represented,” he said. “We are a small community, and we rarely unite for such an effort. Our school board is the largest body of government in our town, and for them to not equally represent the community in and of itself is a problem. With this teacher being let go, it resparked these injustices.”

School board member Rich Olson, who is white, would not comment on the protest, but said that he feels there is diversity on the board and that at least two of the five trustees are Latino or Portuguese.

Laton High School teacher Pedro Hernandez said more students were protesting on Thursday than were in class. The school has about 140 students, and about 80 percent are Hispanic or Latino.

Hernandez said students say they feel overlooked, and he pointed out that there are no translators at school board meetings, which creates barriers for many of the students’ parents who do not speak fluent English.

“I hear them say that their voices don’t matter – that they have distrust in the administration. They don’t feel valued,” he said. “A lot of these kids are first generation, and it’s a big obstacle for these families to communicate their concerns.”

But some people took issue with the protest’s focus on race, insisting there are bigger concerns.

“This protest with the students is not about race,” Laton parent Wendy Westfall said in an email. “The main issue is teacher turnover rate.  Don’t make it a race thing, please.”

Student Riley Smith, 15, also said, “We don’t want this to be a race thing.” But, she said, “students should have a voice.”

Student Chase Silva said while he feels the school board does not understand the community’s needs, the biggest issue is that teachers keep leaving the district, and that affects the students. Silva attended a school board meeting on Wednesday and stayed until 10 p.m. but says he still feels like his concerns weren’t taken seriously.

“The reason why we’re doing this is because we feel like we don’t have a voice,” he said. “Some of the school board members have been here way too long, and it’s time for an update.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays