Adults might imagine the work of a high school journalist as relatively frivolous, with time spent covering school dances, clubs and gossip.
However, today’s students aren’t so privileged.
This year, the staff of The Puma Prensa, the campus newspaper of Santa Rosa’s Maria Carrillo High School, have been documenting a particularly challenging school year, defined by a series of campus scares and an uptick in behavioral issues among students struggling in under-staffed schools.
By the time a 15-year-old Montgomery High School student fatally stabbed a 16-year-old in a classroom at the Santa Rosa school on March 1, The Puma Prensa’s staff was already accustomed to reporting on troubling events.
On Feb. 15, 13 police cars and two motorcycles arrived at Maria Carillo during lunch without immediate explanation. While rumors began to circulate, police and school staff told students to return to class, the Puma Prensa’s web editor Sophia Hughes reported.
Students and parents were later informed that officers were responding to a call alleging a campus shooting was taking place. Thankfully, the call turned out to be a hoax.
A week later, on Feb. 24, classes were disrupted again due to a small on-campus fire. The day of the March 1 stabbing at Montgomery, Maria Carillo students were evacuated from class again after a fire alarm was pulled. The same morning, in an apparently unrelated incident, police arrested a student after receiving reports they had a gun. Although the student was not carrying the weapon at the time of the arrest, police later discovered a firearm discarded in a storm drain off-campus, according to The Puma Prensa.
Since the stabbing at Montgomery, the Maria Carillo journalists have chronicled countywide student protests in print and online. They also launched a new podcast, The Pawd, and, last week, published a documentary edited by staff writer Kevin Wei and filmed by staffers. The film, titled We Want Change, is a 50-minute collage of brief interviews with dozens of students and a few teachers and community members during school walkouts and public meetings, capturing opinions about the whirlwind of events in March.
Needless to say, the hard-working student journalists have plenty to say. In an interview last week, four staffers shared a wide range of stories from the front lines, offering an inside perspective on campus life which wasn’t always captured in the recent flurry of news coverage.
To hear the Puma Prensa’s staff tell it, school life these days is colored by the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, in ways often unacknowledged or unappreciated by the outside world. Many students are struggling to reacclimate to in-person classes after spending several formative years at home.
Rosemary Cromwell, one of the paper’s editors, said, “Students went from interacting with nobody, or being stuck on a computer to [interacting with] all these people. And I think we’re seeing that a lot of people just broke. They couldn’t do it. They couldn’t make that jump.”
“We’ve had problems at school just with basic things, like people [not] throwing away their trash. I’ve heard several teachers who have said, ‘We’ve never had underclassmen act this way,’” said Dana Borunda, a staff writer. “It’s not just exclusive to underclassmen, obviously, but [it’s visible] in how students are reacting to administration or to basic rules just because we’ve been in quarantine.”
Hughes, the web editor, called the transition back to in-person classes “epically brutal.” After being “thrown back into classrooms,” many students are having trouble readjusting to basic etiquette. “They were so used to being able to freely say whatever came into their head on the internet. But, when you go and say that in real life, it’s like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t work out as well,’” Hughes said.
Another factor contributing to behavioral problems may be a lack of adequate attention, the Puma Prensa staffers noted. The Santa Rosa City Schools’ hiring page currently lists 120 open positions, including a few campus supervisor positions. Those employees are tasked with keeping the peace on campus. But, because they are paid $17.40 per hour, the job is unappealing.
“We had a campus supervisor fully hired, and then he figured out exactly how much his pay rate was going to be, and he had to leave because he needed at least $21 an hour,” Cromwell said, comparing campus supervisors’ wages to what she makes “handing out free samples at Costco.”
Hughes said that the many problems stem from a “chain reaction” in which underfunding leads to understaffing, which leads to fights and other problems.
“People are angry because schools don’t have the capacity or the resources to help these children. We’re the ones who need attention the most, especially coming after this pandemic, and we haven’t been supported as we should, with access to counselors, therapists or appropriate class sizes,” Borunda added. “Class size is a huge factor in how much attention a student gets from their teacher… If we don’t get proper education, proper attention, kids feel cheated. Kids feel disappointed, and then the kids can get angry.”
Over a month after the stabbing death of the Montgomery High School student, debate about possible solutions continues.
One idea frequently mentioned by adult speakers at recent school board meetings is to bring police back to campus. For several decades, the Santa Rosa Police Department had an agreement with the Santa Rosa City Schools district to provide several officers acting as school resource officers (SROs) to several Santa Rosa campuses. However, in 2020, the district decided not to renew the agreement, based in part on concern over nationwide studies which show that SROs tend to disproportionately punish students of color.
“The adults often seem to be like, ‘security, lock it down, tighten it up,’” Cromwell said. “As for the kids, we want protection, we want more school staff, including campus supervisors, and we just want to know what’s going on.”
Wei, who edited the paper’s documentary, said, “The perspective that we shouldn’t bring SROs back is largely shared by students who think that having SROs on campus and metal detectors and all these kinds of things would be really restricting. It would bring down the mood of the campus in so many ways. It would make campus seem almost apocalyptic.”
“As a student of color, I just think that not everyone feels comfortable with police around, and not everyone’s going to be treated the same way when police are around. That’s just the reality, and to ignore that is just lying to yourself. If some students don’t feel that way, if they feel safer with police around, that’s valid to their own experience, but not taking into account the perspective of students of color is lacking empathy,” Borunda added.
Find ‘The Puma Prensa’ online at www.thepumaprensa.org.