One year later: All quiet at Live Oak

Live Oak High School Student Voices committee members from left,

A year has passed since national news outlets pounced on the
story of four Live Oak High School teens sent home for wearing
American-themed clothing on Cinco de Mayo. On Thursday all was
quiet on campus. Full article
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What a difference a year makes. The A-frame “media parking” sign that sat on Main Avenue across from Live Oak High School was deserted, except for one local reporter. A year has passed since national news outlets pounced on the story of four teens sent home for wearing American-themed clothing on Cinco de Mayo. On Thursday all was quiet on campus.

“It was an incredibly peaceful and happy day. The kids all got along,” said first-year principal Lloyd Webb near the front office after school.

Webb replaced principal Nick Boden who pulled the trigger on what became the Cinco de Mayo/American T-shirt controversy that shook the sleepy town of 38,000 and its linchpin high school. The Acorns and the Morgan Hill Unified School District were portrayed by some as wrought with division among ethnic groups and quickly known as the site of alleged defiance of students’ First Amendment rights. This Cinco de Mayo, the headlines won’t be the same.

No students were sent home Thursday for wearing Mexico’s colors or for wearing red, white and blue; the policy of MHUSD allows students to wear patriotic clothing anytime, something Superintendent Wes Smith stood by last year when he publicly disagreed with LOHS’ administrative decision.

The administrators who referred to the students’ actions as “incendiary” and directly involved in the ultimatum given to the four male underclassmen – turn your shirt inside-out or go home – both left Live Oak last year. Boden retired and assistant principal Miguel Rodriguez accepted a different position elsewhere. Boden has since take full responsibility for the decision to send home Dominic Maciel, Daniel Galli, Matt Dariano and Austin Carvalho, and said he did it because he feared violence on campus. Taunting did ensue, students said last year, yet this Thursday, it was hard to find a student wearing either combination of colors or one that said the campus was anything like last year.

“Nothing (expletive) happened this year,” yelled one student from her car leaving after school.

There was unmistakable unity on campus. Students in white T-shirts with a Live Oak tree across the front peppered the lawn and among the halls. The white T-shirts would become symbolic of May 5, 2011: peace and unity.

“What happened in the past people take that and use it to reflect Live Oak, but that’s not really what we represent,” said Gaby Cinkova, a LOHS senior and member of Student Voices, a group formed this year based on teacher recommendations of unofficial campus leaders from across all peer groups and classes.

“Our logo is ‘United at the roots, we are all different branches of the same tree’ ” Cinkova said, pulling on her T-shirt to show their mission statement across the bottom. “Although we’re all different people and have different interests, we can all unify as Live Oak students.” Next to Cinkova, stood soccer player and campus rapper Will Gallo and Olivia Priedite, ASB president and cheerleader. The students came back to school Thursday after completing their Advanced Placement English Literature test earlier in the day. At lunch, Gallo flexed his skills with a rap about unity – true to his thoughts about how powerful a school’s students can be when they come together.

“We want to promote an air of unity on campus and to have more universal inclusion,” said Gallo, a senior.

Priedite explained how supportive football players were of the drumline, or the band of the drama club. “Students really appreciate each other,” she said.

Webb added after hearing what his student’s had to say about Voices: “It’s really important, not just for our campus, but for every school to have the student body involved in the school,” he said.

“While we all have our differences and in the past they’ve been shown, we can come together and realize since we all go to Live Oak, we all have one thing in common – that we all need to respect each other,” Priedite said.

Last year on May 5, “respect” was demanded by a gathering of about 200 mostly Hispanic students who marched along Monterey Road through downtown and to City Hall. They yelled “Si se puede!” and “We want respect!” after a rash of anti-Mexico sentiments were heard in town, on the radio, on online blogs and on television.

“It was awful. I never thought anything could happen here like what happened that day,” said Live Oak parent Virginia Barrios from inside her car Thursday morning. She had just dropped off her son, who is Mexican-American.

“We don’t fly the Mexican flag. I’ve never let my children fly that flag. We’re Americans first,” Barrios said, repeating how awful last May 5 was. She said Cinco de Mayo, which marks Mexico’s unlikely victory over the French in 1862 and more often celebrated in the U.S. as a cultural holiday, is just a celebration like St. Patrick’s Day. How the celebration was twisted into drawing a line in the sand in Morgan Hill affected Barrios and splintered relationships, she said.

“Everybody around town that weekend were looking at each other. I just wanted it to go away. The kids suffered and the parents were steering the way,” Barrios said.

At Live Oak and reminiscent of last year was a police presence, though just as a precaution. Three uniformed officers stood at the school gates at the 3:06 p.m. dismissal bell. Smith and a few other district personnel stood on the sidewalk after school.

While it appeared Thursday that students had moved beyond the sting of controversy from last year, a federal civil rights lawsuit over the day’s events is still undecided.

In February, Superior Court Judge James Ware denied the Morgan Hill Unified School District’s motion to dismiss the suit filed against them by parents of the students who were sent home for wearing American T-shirts. The parents ask for their attorney fees to be paid and a change in school district policy to prevent student’s First Amendment rights from being denied again, according to the suit. A pre-trial conference is scheduled for June 17.

The parents of the boys have refused to comment.

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