It was standing-room-only with students and parents spilling out into the hallway at the school board meeting on Tuesday night as speakers protested a student body leader at San Ramon Valley High School who was elected despite creating a campaign video criticized as Islamophobic.
The SRVHS junior -- who remained unnamed throughout the entirety of the meeting due to privacy concerns -- in February produced a campaign video as part of his bid for student body president. It was taken off Twitter shortly after being posted, meaning that few people actually saw the video, but according to students and parents who spoke Tuesday, the video depicted a teen being abducted by Islamic terrorists.
The student, who would go on to garner the most votes in the associated student body (ASB) president election but was initially disqualified from holding the post because of the video, was reinstated as next year's student body president. Some speakers contended the district made that decision only after his parents threatened legal action, citing their son's punishment as a violation of his right to free speech.
Parents and students who attended the meeting Tuesday expressed outrage that the school district had moved to reinstate the student in question, as SRVHS student body president for the 2017-18 school year.
Samantha Pearlstein, a SRVHS senior who was serving as the school board's student member Tuesday, expressed disappointment at the district's decision, arguing that it ran contrary to the school's "ultimate goal of creating an inclusive and welcoming campus no matter one’s race or ethnicity."
Others agreed. More than 50 audience members spoke to the board on the topic, offering their comments during public input on non-agenda items for nearly three hours. Board members said they could not directly respond to any of the speakers Tuesday because the item was not on their posted agenda.
Several Muslim students and community members stepped up to the podium to voice their discontent at the lack of accountability for the student and to recount stories of discrimination they too had faced in the district.
"The Islam that I know, and that 1.7 billion other Muslims know, preaches love and compassion," said senior Sheerin Khan, who served as student body president at Dougherty Valley High School this year. "And I find it absolutely abhorrent that someone would use my faith for their political gain through stereotypes that were disrespectful to the Muslim community."
The student and his family weren't present Tuesday, but their lawyer, Gill Sperlein, attended part of the meeting, though he didn't speak. He said he felt that many speakers were misinformed about the events that had transpired, especially since very few people had actually seen the video.
In particular, Sperlein said, one of the most egregious mischaracterizations voiced by multiple speakers was the idea that the candidate was not remorseful about his actions.
Upon receiving a call from a friend that the video he had posted was offensive, the student had immediately taken it down. And later on, after the video had come to the attention of school officials, the student wrote an unprompted apology letter that was "from the heart," that unfortunately could not be circulated amongst students due to privacy concerns, according to Sperlein.
The attorney argued that the school's since-overturned initial punishment for his client was a violation of the First Amendment.
"There are limited situations where schools or school districts can regulate speech between students," he said. "And it's our position that the circumstances here did not meet any of those special conditions, in which schools are allowed to regulate speech."
Nearly all of the speakers Tuesday night disagreed, arguing the student should be removed from office because of the video.
Spojmie Nasiri from the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations urged the board to follow up on the incident.
"We encourage the district to conduct a thorough investigation regarding this matter and not to rub it under the carpet stating it was just a joke," she said. "Jokes have consequences and words have consequences for those individuals that are involved."
Others from the school's ASB were upset that a student who had created a racially insensitive campaign video in what they saw as a violation of the leadership group's code of conduct would return as a student leader the following year.
Brianna Relucio, a SRVHS senior and current member of the ASB, stated that she and other student body leaders had supported the disqualification of the student in question. "How can the candidate claim that he wants to represent the whole when he targets a part?" she asked.
Although the board members didn't directly speak to the issue at the meeting, Monday Superintendent Rick Schmitt sent out a communication to the school community addressing the issue. Schmitt affirmed that the campaign video didn't reflect the views of the district and stressed their commitment to take seriously "allegations of hate speech, harassment and bullying."
He added, though, that they "never perceived the contents of the video to rise to the level of 'hate speech,'" and asked members of the public who hadn't seen the video's contents not to jump to conclusions.
Citing student privacy laws, Schmitt said the district was unable to share further specifics on the case, but he suggested that this could be used as a learning opportunity, writing in the communication. "Such incidents can be an opportunity to educate our students about the importance of tolerance, equity and inclusion, as well as protected free speech," he wrote.