By Alex Emslie
It was a march that almost didn’t happen.
But today, a couple dozen San Francisco students from Visitacion Valley Middle School made a statement on police accountability and violence in their neighborhoods. They took a field trip to a neighboring high school, June Jordan School for Equity. And they marched there.
That route, through John McLaren Park in southeast San Francisco, wasn’t 13-year-old Shauntique Smith-Carter’s original idea.
“My whole intention was to walk on both sides of the streets and take up the whole Mission,” he said, “and I knew that would probably get ya’lls attention because I know the news. They go for big stories.”
Shauntique’s idea started to take off sometime in late February, after he had brought it to a few of his teachers and one assistant principal, Emmanuel Stewart.
“There was a lot going on in the country at that time,” Stewart said, “a lot with Ferguson and New York City and Michael Brown. There were a lot of issues, and he came to me and asked, ‘What would be the possibility of our school having a march or something positive?’ ”
Stewart said he didn’t see why not, and the idea started to gather momentum. Students and teachers from other schools found out and wanted to join.
But after more than one school got involved, what was initially a field trip became a districtwide event that had to be approved by the district, and the “March on the Mission” was not.
“San Francisco School District risk management said we just didn’t do our due diligence,” Stewart said.
SFUSD’s risk management office did not respond to questions about the district’s rationale for canceling the march. A school district spokeswoman said SFUSD is supportive of the students’ event today. She said she didn’t know about the previous plan.
There were a few days in mid-March when the students were sure their march was canceled.
“At first I was mad and I wanted to flip out,” Shauntique said. “But I kept my calm how my mom taught me, and I thought to myself, what would this lead to, if I flipped out?”
That moment illustrates a transformation the 13-year-old has undergone over the past year, according to Erica Ross, who has legal custody of Shauntique. Shauntique calls her “mom,” but he also maintains a relationship with his biological mother, Ross said.
“Shauntique has a little past of fighting and being angry and just not getting along with staff or students,” she said. Stewart said his relationship with Shauntique has involved a lot of office visits after teachers kicked him out of class.
But in February 2014, Shauntique was severely injured — something he calls a life-changing experience.
“I had did something really bad,” he said. “I had stole money from someone, and some other things, and I was supposed to get shot. But he ran me over instead.”
He survived but was hospitalized for months, Ross said, part of the time in a medically induced coma. He had a total of 16 surgeries and carries a metal rod in his right leg and two pins in each of his shoulders.
“I was hanging out in Havenscourt [Oakland] thinking I was a little billy bad butt, but I wasn’t,” Shauntique said, adding his mother and siblings had always told him to stay away from selling drugs. “I did my own thing anyway, and I’m crippled now.”
He said when it gets cold, he can feel the metal in his body “freezing,” and he exercises every morning to keep his weight down so he doesn’t lose his leg.
“From that experience, he realized that’s not the life for him,” Ross said. “He wants to pursue a college education; he didn’t feel that way before. He wants to help other people; he was very self-centered and egotistical. And he’s very humble now, a very different kid.”
Then Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. entered Shauntique’s life, through the curriculum of a special education teacher. Shauntique suddenly had a teacher he could identify with, who was talking about a subject that resonated.
“That educator has done an outstanding job of bringing in things that matter to our students, that have them engaged in the classroom,” Stewart said. “So this [march] is just one more engagement piece, and I think that has to happen throughout the school.”
Students at Visitacion Valley could use some engagement.
There’s a higher-than-average number of foster youth at the school, and 84.3 percent of the student body is classified as “socioeconomically disadvantaged” by the school district. Only 7 percent of African-American students score at or above proficient in science. The whole student body ranks at about half the rate of the rest of the district for proficiency in English and math.
Visitacion Valley Middle School’s population last year was about equal parts African-American and Latino students, and those two groups make up more than half the student body. Just 4.3 percent of students there are white. Suspensions started to fall at the school and districtwide last school year, but Visitacion Valley’s suspension rate is still more than six times the district as a whole.
On Tuesday morning, Stewart paged through a stack of letters from Shauntique’s class. They were delivered after the students learned their march was canceled, and before the idea was resurrected. They’re all very similar, though some students added a phrase here or there. Most say:
Dear Mr. Stewart,
I want to thank you for helping with the March on the Mission. I believe in what you are doing. I just wanted to tell you thank you. Never give up. Never surrender!
“We figured out a different way of doing it,” Stewart said. “They should be able to speak about what’s going on in their community.”
That different way involved scaling back the march. It would be only Visitacion Valley Middle School, and it would be through McLaren Park, not down a busy city street.
The students played drums and sang as they walked the mile or so between the schools. An SFUSD spokeswoman said the district could not accommodate KQED reporting on events inside June Jordan.
But ninth- and 10th-grade humanities teacher Karen Zapata said the “students teaching students” workshops went went well.
“It’s basically our young people showing leadership and sharing their skills as conscious young people with a group of middle schoolers who feel really strongly about injustice,” Zapata said.
Nikki Whittaker, a 16-year-old who facilitated some of the workshops with the middle schoolers, confirmed that a handful of them, including Shauntique, recited portions from Martin Luther King Jr. speeches to an assembly of the whole high school.
“It was crazy because the middle schoolers had so much opinion in them,” she said. “They were so engaged and participating.”