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Opinion: We're students on San Diego area school boards. We won't be marginalized.

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 1/28/2021 Zachary Patterson , Emily Bylsma
a room filled with furniture on top of a wooden table: In this file photo, math teacher Doug Walters sits among empty desks as he takes part in a video conference with other teachers to prepare for at-home learning at Twentynine Palms Junior High School in Twentynine Palms, Calif. Below, student trustees write about the value of student voices in discussions about reopening schools during the pandemic. (ASSOCIATED PRESS) © Provided by San Diego Union Tribune In this file photo, math teacher Doug Walters sits among empty desks as he takes part in a video conference with other teachers to prepare for at-home learning at Twentynine Palms Junior High School in Twentynine Palms, Calif. Below, student trustees write about the value of student voices in discussions about reopening schools during the pandemic. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Patterson is a junior at University City High School, and a student trustee on the San Diego Unified Board of Education and president of the California Student Board Member Association. He lives in University City. Bylsma is a senior at Poway High School, and a student trustee on the Poway Unified Board of Education, and vice president of the California Student Board Member Association. She lives in Poway.

We will never forget our experiences of serving on local school boards during the largest public health crisis in recent history. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has tested the capacity and resilience of schools nationwide, we are proud to fiercely advocate for thousands of students as our school districts work toward a safe and equitable reopening. As student board members, our voices are critical to board deliberations that often include parents, teachers and the community while excluding the students themselves. We are fortunate to be members of boards of education where we are judged by the merits of our ideas, not by our age.

Last month, we were horrified to witness the deliberations of the San Dieguito Union High School District Board of Education when board trustee Michael Allman actively denounced the involvement of students in any capacity in discussions on reopening by saying, “I think the value that they [student board members] provided in what we have to decide [school reopening] is very near zero.” Allman went on to describe students contributing to board deliberations as “young kids” who lack the basic competency to contribute to reopening discussions. His words not only disregarded the important contributions of Carrie Su, the student board member, but were an attack on the voices of all student leaders in our nation.

The interaction began when trustee Su shared the concerns of students to her colleagues on the school board, saying, “As teenagers in middle school and high school, we have a complete right to be scared about returning to school. In going back to school, we’re not only worried about contracting the virus from perhaps our peers, but also spreading it to our family and our communities.” After sharing these reasonable concerns, trustee Allman chose to attack the legitimacy of students participating in board discussions: “To think that this board should place very much weight at all on what a couple of individual high schoolers think is a dereliction.”

The foundation of civil discourse is listening to others’ views and agreeing or challenging them based on the merits of the ideas offered. With his comments at last month’s board meeting, trustee Allman compromised this very foundation.

Before the comments made by trustee Allman, by politely challenging student trustee Su’s assertions, medical professionals and other board members demonstrated actual, focused deliberation on the topic of reopening. This was disrupted when trustee Allman decided to derail the central focus of the meeting, school reopening, and instead chose to target the student board member.

As student members on the San Diego and Poway Unified school boards, we see, hear and experience the struggles of this pandemic and its effects on education. While we have not always agreed with our colleagues on a singular path forward, our contributions are valued based on our ideas, not our status as student board members. We each spend 10 to 15 hours per week without pay to understand our peers and their needs. When we walk into a Board of Education meeting, we are prepared to represent our constituency and cast a vote like any other board member.

While trustee Allman may not believe in student voices, they are undoubtedly indispensable in board of education discussions.

Take a few months ago when I, Zachary Patterson, worked with my colleagues on the San Diego Unified Board of Education to revise a potential board policy when I identified several sections that contradicted the school district’s mission.

Or just last month when I, Emily Bylsma, called on my colleagues on the Poway Unified Board of Education to formally equate mental health to the importance of physical health and allow excused absences for mental health reasons.

As students, we represent the primary stakeholders of the education system. To diminish our voices as student trustees, like trustee Allman of the SDUHSD board of education did, is to disregard the individuals who face the consequences of board decisions.

School board trustees should lift students up, not push them down. By listening to the rational concerns of students, we can create reopening plans that allow our students to succeed. As student board members, we ask our leaders to recognize that while students may be the society of tomorrow, our advocacy to improve our schools starts today.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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