Álvarez, Riegert & Tellez: Orange County Educators and Labor Unions Can Play a Pivotal Role in Dismantling Systemic Racism Amidst George Floyd Protests

This is an open letter to Orange County Labor Unions and Educators’ Associations,

Black Lives Matter. This past week’s protests, following the tragic murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, serve as reminders that our youth here in Orange County are under duress and are in need of our support.

The freedom of assembly is a fundamental mechanism to create change in our country’s history, and it is inspirational to see youth taking to the streets to challenge discriminatory practices within the criminal justice system and systemic inequalities overall. We see it at schools in communities of color that are under-funded, while these same communities are over-policed. We see it as COVID-19 cases are piling up in these communities due to the lack of health care, lack of affordable/safe housing, and in the fact that many working people in these communities are essential workers, providing labor so that all can have the basic necessities we need during this pandemic.

If we study our history then we can see why there are no longer any large Black communities in Orange County. Sundown towns, the KKK, the John Birch Society and other entities like these have all contributed to the obstruction of prosperity and growth among African American communities through discriminatory housing and labor practices.

While there were thriving communities such as Little Texas in Santa Ana and the Truslow neighborhood in Fullerton, they were given fewer opportunities to advance than others. Now, as we see the growing number of people of color and immigrant communities in Orange County, we continue to see instances of excessive force used by police in our neighborhoods. This is not necessary and must come to an end.

Mayer and Furlong demonstrate in their 2010 article “How safe are our schools?” that school violence and behavior-related problems are much less significant than many people, including school staff, might assume. Our general perceptions of school safety are influenced by the media’s treatment of high-profile events such as school shootings, while ignoring issues like bullying, which actually represent a significant portion of behavior-related problems experienced by our students.

Research by Noguera, Hyman and Perone, Anfara Jr. and Theriot, also suggests that a repressive approach to school safety characterized by police presence, surveillance cameras, locks, and metal detectors do more harm than good by creating an atmosphere of mistrust and alienation that causes students to misbehave (Beger, 2002). Behavior issues that were traditionally handled informally by teachers are now being outsourced to police. Hiring police to monitor and discipline our students is an ineffective tool that is used and abused by school staff members who are unable to engage appropriately with our students. Police do not protect students on campus. As evidenced by the campus police officer at Marjory Stoneman-Douglas School in Florida, having an officer present on campus is not even adequate protection against school shooters. And we are seeing higher rates of police presence on campuses in communities of color.

As educators and as working people, it is our responsibility to ensure that our students and the next generation overall have the necessary tools to create a brighter future for this nation. Therefore, we call on educators’ associations, and local Orange County labor unions in general, to take these initial actions to address past injustices:

1. Support anti-racist education and Ethnic Studies. It is time that we center the lives, stories, identities, and cultures of the students we serve daily into our curriculum. This will demonstrate that we value not only our students, but the communities in which we work. Learning how to discuss topics of race and systemic racism in our country’s history also improves the mental health and critical thinking skills of our students, celebrates diversity, and forges cross-cultural unity. Now more than ever before, it is of utmost importance to share and celebrate diversity and learn from one another.

2. Urge local cities to curtail the bloated budgets of police departments across Orange County and divert funds to support after-school youth programs, tutoring, community recreation, and youth employment programs that do not necessitate the carrying of firearms. Let’s support measures that prevent crime rather than punitive measures that often lead to more crime. Community investment is something that has been placed behind community policing; this practice contributes to the violence communities of color face everyday.

3. Demand that police departments do not hire officers with a history of violent misconduct or domestic abuse, and that officers currently holding positions with these past infractions be removed from their departments.

4. Denounce police departments usage of “less-lethal” weapons and military-grade equipment on residents, such as tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets, sound grenades or tanks, like the ones used in Santa Ana during Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the past week. Police departments should not be buying equipment that is used in wars to repress our communities. They are dangerous and have caused serious harm to individuals.

5. Demand that school district police departments be defunded and that finances be used for students directly in the classroom. This can take the form of counseling centers, effective trauma-informed practices, parent involvement efforts, wellness centers, and translators/interpreters.

6. Demand that school districts fund mandatory trauma-informed professional development for all staff in an effort to support students mental and social health.

There is no better time to act boldly and to see racial justice in action than NOW.
You can sign our petition here.

In Unity,
The OC Educators for Social Justice Network

Liz Gracian, Anaheim Union HSD

Benjamin Vazquez, Santa Ana USD

Perla Dionicio, Santa Ana USD

Mike Rodriguez, Santa Ana USD

Shayna Lathus, Santa Ana USD

Juan Álvarez, Anaheim Union HSD

Carah Reed, Santa Ana USD Natalie Estrada

Jessica Riegert, Los Alamitos USD

Wendy Abrams Dotan, Anaheim Union HSD

Yuri Lara, Santa Ana USD

Veronica Lopez, Anaheim Union HSD

Kimberly Sprafka, Santa Ana USD

John Sprafka, Santa Ana USD

Betsy Cruz, Centralia ESD

Tina Alcaraz-Andres, Santa Ana USD

Stephanie Tellez, Santa Ana USD

Joel L Medina, Santa Ana USD

Sherry Skipper-Spurgeon, Santa Ana USD

Juan Álvarez is a Junior High Math teacher. He teaches and resides in the city of Anaheim. Juan runs a non-profit centered on literacy and serves on several boards advocating for his community.

Jessica Riegert is a teacher in the Los Alamitos School District. She is a known activist within the community who continues to speak up for marginalized students.   

Stephanie Tellez lives in Orange County and is a special education educator in Santa Ana. In conjunction with five other educators she has developed curriculum on creating just and equitable schools presenting across the country to National Education Association members. 

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