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West County High School students walk out of classes again over name change reversal

Hundreds of West County High School students walked out of classes for the second time in two months over the school board’s decision to change the name of the school back to Analy.|

Meghan Hartsock had a favor to ask.

Before launching into an oration stripping the bark off the school board that governs her and her fellow students, the West County High School junior implored the 90-or-so protestors at Sebastopol’s town plaza:

“We want to be socially distanced so we don’t get stopped by the cops. Try to stay about six feet apart, please. I would really appreciate that.”

Welcome to student protests in the age of COVID-19.

This walkout, West County High’s second in six weeks, was scheduled so Hartsock and company could express their outrage — again — over the West Sonoma County Union High School District board’s 4-1 decision, on Dec. 1, canceling plans to rename the school, which will soon revert to Analy.

Shortly after that first protest, students formed the West County Activist Club, which asked the school board to put the subject of rebranding on the agenda for its Jan. 19 meeting. That didn’t happen. And so, starting at 10:30 Wednesday, the students hit the streets.

“Make Our Board Keep Their Promises,” said one sign, zinging the trustees for going back on their word. They’d announced their intent to rebrand the school last March, after voting to consolidate Analy High School with the district’s El Molino High School in Forestville, which was closed to address a budget deficit.

In May, the board approved West County as a temporary name for the Sebastopol campus. The rebranding would take place, it said, after it sought extensive input from students. Last month’s sudden decision to simply revert to the Analy name has sparked widespread anger — and now a pair of student protests.

The West County name, said board member Julie Aiello on Wednesday, “wasn’t bringing the community together in the way we had hoped.”

The board’s decision was influenced by vocal Analy alumni, who were singled out for scorn in many signs seen Wednesday.

“Dear Alumni,” said a placard wielded by a student whose knee-high socks sported a skull-and-crossbones pattern, “Just Say You Peaked In High School, and Move On.”

This protest was a bit trickier than the last, requiring students to vent their frustration while abiding by Sonoma County’s recent ban on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people, a step taken to slow the surge of the COVID-19 omicron variant.

Word went out on social media on the eve of the event that marchers would divide themselves into groups of less than 100 students, each marching to a different location. The gathering places included the Plaza, the Barlow, and the intersection near the CVS and Screamin’ Mimis ice cream shop.

“My main concern is the safety of our students,” said West County principal Shauna Ferdinandson, looking slightly apprehensive as students marshaled for the walkout. “But they seem to be taking a lot of precautions, and creating procedures that will help mitigate some of the risk.”

Less pleased with the walkout was board president Patrick Nagle, who released a statement Wednesday morning expressing concern “about the students safety, which can not be monitored when or if they leave campus. The students have already missed a year and a half of in-person instruction. It is not in the students best interest to miss more.”

Back at the Plaza — named, incidentally, for Mario Savio, who gained renown five decades ago as a member of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement — Hartsock was followed by senior KatieAnn Nguyen, the morning’s most Savio-like speaker.

“One walkout was NEVER enough,” she declaimed, to raucous cheers. “It was not enough for (the board) to hear you, not enough for them to understand your feelings, not enough for you to tell them how you feel about West County.”

“You are walking out of class today because you are angry, because you do not want your history at West County to be erased.”

Here Nguyen hewed closest to the students’ biggest source of anger and pain. As junior Asa Bush explained on the eve of the protest, she hadn’t been sure what to expect going into this school year — the first semester since the consolidation.

“Was it going to be this situation where nobody wanted to talk to anyone from their former rival school?” she said.

Instead, Bush went on, “Everybody really embraced that we were starting something new together. And it really showed.” At sporting events and dances, she said, “there’s been really high attendance. It’s felt really inclusive. We really got to make our own community, from the beginning,” she said.

Going back to Analy “defeats the purpose of joining together.”

It “completely disrupts the unity we’ve tried to build this year,” agreed senior Hunter Valencia.

“We are here, cutting our 3rd, 5th and 7th periods, not because we WANT to cut class,” roared Nguyen, “but because we demand change.

“This is no longer Analy. This is West County and it’s here to stay.”

Pouring cold water on that sentiment was board member Nagle. Asked earlier that morning if there was any chance the trustees would reconsider their decision to halt the rebranding, he said, “All I can say at this time is that there isn’t support to do that. On the board, we need three members to signal they want to readdress it.” At this time, there weren’t three members “that want to do that.”

Nagle, appointed to the board in September, allowed that the process for rebranding the school “should have been more clearly defined.”

A statement released by the West County Activism Club stated that the trustees had changed their minds about rebranding because the Analy Alumni Association threatened to “to pull funds and donations” if it did not get its way.

That’s not exactly true, countered a member of the association, who asked that their name not be printed, in order to avoid receiving any more “hate mail.”

The association’s bylaws say it will support Analy High School. “If it’s not Analy,” the member said, “our bylaws don’t work.”

Like many of her classmates, ex-El Molino and ex-Analy alike, Bush is exasperated by Analy alumni “who can’t accept the change.”

“We’re the ones attending the school,” she said. “We’re the ones creating something new. This effects us more than it effects them.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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