Luke Amphlett, social studies teacher at Burbank High School.
Luke Amphlett, a history teacher at Luther Burbank High School and Poder member, speaks at an event in June 2019. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A group of San Antonio Independent School District students called for the district to include more diverse student voices that accurately represent them in district decisions during a discussion on student rights Tuesday.

The SAISD Student Coalition and Poder, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel’s social justice caucus, held a Facebook Live discussion on student rights Tuesday, with experts from the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based nonprofit working to end inequities in state laws.

Students founded the coalition to advocate for more students’ voices to be included in drafting and amending the SAISD Student Bill of Rights, a document outlining 10 rights including that students have a right to a safe, caring, and welcoming school environment, the right to student voice so their ideas and opinions are heard and considered, and the right to consistent and equitable discipline practices. SAISD’s board adopted the Student Bill of Rights in November 2019.

Tuesday’s discussion centered on the need for more student input in the Student Bill of Rights, decisions on how schools operate during the coronavirus pandemic, discipline and the SAISD police, and how to educate students about their rights.

Junior Nayeli Aleman, a member of the student coalition, said SAISD students in grades 3-12 will receive a presentation on the district’s Student Bill of Rights this week and take a survey to share their opinions of the document.

Junior Nayeli Aleman, a member of the SAISD Student Coalition. Credit: Courtesy / PODER Facebook

But the students on the Tuesday discussion panel said a survey simply isn’t enough to provide student representation in amending the Student Bill of Rights and many other decisions the school district makes, including how schools operate during the coronavirus pandemic.

Jackie Campos, a senior at the Young Women’s Leadership Academy and coalition member, said her school has never asked her how she thinks schools should operate during the pandemic or how students are coping.

“Surveys don’t represent student voice, and it’s dehumanizing that they’re not reaching out to us and not asking us how we feel about these things,” she said. “It’s basically just a focus on funding and nothing about our lives, our families, and our communities.”

David Stovall, a professor of Black Studies and Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said school systems need to learn to work to engage students in different ways in pandemic conditions and “go beyond what has been prescribed.”

“We can take into account what it means to operate in COVID and then at the same time pay attention to students’ needs,” he said. “The express needs should facilitate any discussion of student rights. I think that’s critically important given the current moment, but that should be the standard.”

David Stovall, a professor of Black Studies and Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
David Stovall, a professor of Black Studies and Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Credit: Courtesy / PODER Facebook

Aleman said the student voices SAISD tends to include are a selected group who fit “the good student” model and do not fully represent the entire student population.

“Student rights means having a student body that can advocate for themselves and for other students and that can make a tangible change and not just be heard by district leaders,” she said.

Aleman said in 10 years she wants to see SAISD listen to all community stakeholders, including teachers, staff, parents, and students, and be a district that focuses less on data collection and more on culturally responsive curriculum and social-emotional well-being rather than standardized exams.

Luke Amphlett, a history teacher at Luther Burbank High School and Poder member, said the only time SAISD seems to remember students are human beings is “when our leaders are using them as a tool, as an excuse to push educators back into classrooms that we’re very worried” are unsafe.

“People are stunned by the fact that they are being shown every single day that their lives aren’t as important as standardized testing. Their lives aren’t as important as the funding that is being held hostage somewhere,” he said. “Their lives aren’t as important as some other school administrator’s or politician’s political career, and I think what’s most jarring about that is that we’ve been sold this idea that schools are different, the education system is different. No one expected the bosses of fast-food chains to be kind during a pandemic. People expect a level of cruelty that we shouldn’t allow, but people have come to expect it under American capitalism.”

Amphlett said school is viewed as a different place where people can see the potential of society, but that is not the case.

Texas Appleseed’s Education Justice Project Director Andrew Hairston said student rights ought to look like budgets that match student priorities. In SAISD, that involves abolishing or at least cutting funding to the district’s police force and putting those funds into the pockets of families.

In February, high school students spoke at a school board meeting, asking for further revisions to the bill of rights and code of conduct. Some of the students who spoke asked campuses to stop calling police officers for help on discipline issues.

“Student rights would look like for the first time in history, stepping away from the criminalization of young Black and brown people, especially in San Antonio and throughout Texas, and putting the funds in their pockets and in their communities to ensure that they can thrive, not only in school but during this really challenging moment for us all,” he said.

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.