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Santa Rosa Schools urge students to stay in school Tuesday


Santa Rosa City Schools officials are urging students to stay in school Tuesday despite a planned march to protest the shooting death of eighth-grader Andy Lopez last week by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy.

Citing students' safety, officials issued automated phone calls, sent emails and distributed fliers Monday to the 16,000 families in Sonoma County's largest school district informing them the march is not a school sanctioned event and that students who attend do so at their own risk.

"We are communicating the same message to everyone that the safest place to be is on campus," said Santa Rosa School Board member Donna Jeye. "I think students do need a place to vent, to express their anger, their fear and frustration, but this walk tomorrow may not be the right venue for them."

Jeye joined fellow board member Jenni Klose, as well as Oscar Chavez, assistant director of Human Services at the county; Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs; Supervisor Efren Carrillo and others at the home of Supervisor Shirlee Zane Sunday night to address the issue of student safety at today's event, as well as community engagement in light of continued marches and protests after Lopez was killed walking near his home while carrying a BB gun designed to resemble an AK-47 assault rifle.

"Nobody is saying the Latino community doesn't have the right to be angry. Nobody is saying the youth don't have a right to be angry," Zane said. "I think we have some legitimate concerns about their safety and well being."

Zane cited language in a flier that was distributed at a viewing service held Sunday for Lopez and also at the site on Moorland Avenue in southwest Santa Rosa where Lopez was killed last Tuesday.

"It's terrifying," she said of the flier. "They are using 'murder' all over this. They are giving inaccurate information. It's inflammatory language to get people riled up."

The flipside of the flier shows a photo of Lopez along with a fill-in-the-blank permission slip for parents to sign off on their student's absence.

David Douglass, an organizer with Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigration Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary, the group that distributed the flier, defended the language and the role outside groups play in keeping the issue at the fore.

"What our flier says is the plain truth," the Santa Rosa native and current University of California at Berkeley senior said.

"No black or Latino youth is safe in Santa Rosa as long as he is out in the community," he said of Sheriff's deputy Erick Gelhaus, the 24-year veteran publicly confirmed Sunday as the officer who fired on Lopez.

"There should be no business as usual as long as a killer is out free," Douglass said.

Douglass said that students and families will be safe along the march route which follows much the same path as Friday's largely peaceful march which saw hundreds of mostly middle and high school students walk from various campuses to City Hall and eventually to the Sheriff's office on Ventura Avenue.

County officials sent out a notice Monday afternoon warning of impacted operations throughout the County Administrative Center on Tuesday and encouraged residents and visitors are encouraged to not come to the area.

But leaders, even those who are urging students to remain at school, acknowledged the need for some to express their emotions in the wake of a boy's death.

"We want to acknowledge that the community is upset. There is a lot of anger," Chavez said.

For those students who want to participate, Chavez encouraged parents to accompany them.

"Probably the best thing to do is for parents to join their children and be part of a constructive, meaningful experience," he said.

"No question, tensions are high," he said. "There is a lot of anxiety about what is going on. This is so big."

Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Socorro Shiels said the tenor of today's protest is different from the student-led march that occurred Friday and she urged students to remain in class.

"Our message is that students should be in school, that is the safest place for them," she said.

"It does sound like it's organized by people who are not of this community, who are coming into town and I do worry that they would not be as concerned about our local kids as our local community is," she said.

Shiels defended the district's decision Friday to provide bus transportation from the march back to campuses. Many parents did not know their students had left school, she said, and the buses kept students together, safe and transferred them back to campuses.

"It was one way," she said, noting that buses did not transport students to the protest, only returned them to campuses after hours of walking. "It was all done in the name of safety and no other reason."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.