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Poway Unified Confronts Allegations Of Racism, VA’s Conflicting Accounts Of Drug Treatment For Suicidal Vets And Marine’s Confederate Flag Ban

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Above: The Sweetwater Union High School District central office is shown, Nov. 7, 2018.

School districts in San Diego are confronting internal problems ranging from race to finances. KPBS education reporter Joe Hong joins us to discuss how Poway Unified is addressing reports of racist incidents and ongoing budget woes at Sweetwater Union High School district. Plus, the San Diego VA is offering conflicting accounts over its decision to take veterans off a drug treatment that they say helped them cope with depression. Also, the Marine Corps banned the confederate flag and top Marine leaders say a conversation about race in the Corps is long overdue.

Speaker 1: 00:01 San Diego school districts confront racism, allegations of fraud, and the Marine Corps begins a difficult conversation. I'm wearing Kavanaugh. This is KPBS mid day edition. It's Friday, June 26th. Governor Gavin Newsome held his fourth COVID-19 update this week as coronavirus cases continue to rise across the state and the nation today. He advised officials in Imperial County to reinstate their stay at home order because of rising rates of COVID-19 transmissions. The county's positivity rate has risen to 23% over the last two weeks. That's in comparison with the state's overall 5.3 positivity rate.

Speaker 2: 00:55 We obviously are at a point now where the impacts and we're signing counties, the impacts and the public health within the counties is such, uh, that we believe it is time to dial back, uh, as it relates to their efforts. Remember they never moved forward as far as are the parts of the state, but nonetheless, the conditions are such that it's time to pull back further.

Speaker 1: 01:19 And the governor says he's ready to intervene. If Imperial County fails to take action

Speaker 1: 01:30 This week, the Poway unified school district took a step forward in addressing the other major issue. That's been in the headlines for weeks. Systemic racism and Instagram accounts started by students of color has brought racial inequities to light by documenting incidents throughout the school district and in the South Bay evidence of financial fraud at the Sweetwater union high school district led to the school superintendent being put on administrative leave. Joining me with more on both these schools stories is KPBS education reporter Joe Hong, Joe. Welcome. Can you tell us about this Instagram account started by Poway students? Does it document many instances of racism?

Speaker 3: 02:14 Yeah, so the Instagram account is called black and PUSD it's, uh, started anonymously by some students and, um, teachers, students, really anyone affiliated with how a unified is able to submit sort of anonymous testimony about things they've witnessed, things they've experienced on, uh, on campuses. And so far I just checked, there are 352 posts, sort of, um, describing incidents of racism at schools.

Speaker 1: 02:45 What kinds of incidents does it include?

Speaker 3: 02:47 So it's really across the board. Um, you have racism between students, students using racial slurs and teachers not doing anything about it. Racism, teachers, uh, teachers being sort of saying, making insensitive comments about other teachers. And you also have some cases of just, uh, sort of inappropriate behavior, inappropriate touching between teachers and students as well.

Speaker 1: 03:16 Part of the problem seems to be the lack of teachers of color at Poway unified. How does the makeup of the teaching staff compare with the students in Poway?

Speaker 3: 03:25 Yeah. So one of the things that really permeates a lot of these posts is that, uh, students and teachers often report these incidents of racism, but nothing ever happens. And a lot of these posts sort of attribute that to the lack of diversity among school staff. So at Palla unified, about 2% of students are African American that compare that to less than half a percent of teachers. Um, so to put that real numbers among the about 1600 teachers at Poway, only eight are African Americans in the whole district. And, uh, to look at the Latino population, um, about one in six students in the district is Latino, but compared to that's only one in 20 teachers who are Latino in the district,

Speaker 1: 04:13 What's been the reaction of the Poway unified school board to these accounts of racist incidents in school.

Speaker 3: 04:20 Yeah. So the Powell unified school board passed the resolution last night, pledging to do more, to uphold and anti-racist culture at the district and to create new policies for hiring a more diverse staff. Um, I spoke with a school board member named Darshana Patel, who said, this is just the beginning. And she, she sincerely apologized to students who have reported this type of behavior before, but sauna good outcomes.

Speaker 1: 04:50 We're going to do some deep reflection on confronting our internal biases. And we're going to look at that. There will be change well in the South Bay. Joe's now we have Sweetwater high school districts, financial troubles, and the which continued this week. A state audit found evidence of fraud in the school's finances. What do they say is wrong?

Speaker 3: 05:12 There were two primary findings. And was that back in 2017, the school district gave teachers, um, a 3.7, 5% raise without having all the information about the district's finances. So basically they weren't sure if they could afford this raise for teachers. And the second item was that the school board only went to one bond rating agency in 2018 to get a school bond measure passed in that election.

Speaker 1: 05:42 Why is requesting just one bond rating and issue?

Speaker 3: 05:46 Yeah. So when a school school board wants to pass a bond measure, you want to get multiple opinions and get different ratings. But the problem at Sweetwater was that only one's a one bond rating agency and they also didn't provide complete information about the district's finances. On top of that,

Speaker 1: 06:05 A Sweetwater, a school superintendent, Karen Janney has now been put on paid administrative leave by the school board while the investigation continues. Why did the board do that? And who's going to continue to look into these allegations,

Speaker 3: 06:19 The specific reason for putting Jannie on lever or kind of unclear, they said the shooting place on leave to make for a more efficient investigation following the audit, the audit report. Um, but you know, if you sort of read between the lines, Karen Jannie was the superintendent. When these things happened at the school district and the district attorney's office, the state board of education, they're going to pursue more investigation and act upon the investigation that was, um, that was performed during the audit.

Speaker 1: 06:52 Meanwhile, Wednesday night, the sweet water board finalized the layoffs of 223 employees. When those layoffs were first announced, they were protested by many parents in the district. Is there any connection between the alleged fraud and the need for these layoffs?

Speaker 3: 07:10 Yeah. So the teachers who are laid off or the staff who were laid off will say that the financial problems at the district really started with those raises that the district really couldn't afford. So they, the audit just also found more broadly, um, evidence of just systemic mismanagement at the district. And ultimately these layoffs are sort of the outcome of the financial mismanagement.

Speaker 1: 07:36 I've been speaking with KPBS education reporter, Joe Hong and Joe. Thank you. Thank you.

Speaker 4: 07:53 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 07:57 The Marine Corps recently banned the Confederate flag on military bases around the world. It was the first step toward what the commandant of the Marine Corps has called a difficult conversation. One about racism in the Corps Marines say this conversation has never been easy. KPBS, military reporter. Steve Walsh has the story.

Speaker 5: 08:18 I sit up, look at me now from the time Marines enter bootcamp, they're told that the service is colorblind. There are no white Marines. Brown Marines are black Marines. Everyone is Marine green. I'm totally against, um, explain it to a lot of the leaders. Stefan Williams runs a leadership training firm in Jacksonville, Florida. He joined the Corps in 1993 and retired in 2014. During that time Williams facilitated many conversations on racial bias. He still works with Marine units as a consultant. When you tell people to, Hey, you all green, it's just

Speaker 6: 08:56 Like saying, I don't see color. If you don't see color, you don't know who's on your team. So I have to know that, Hey, as an Asian Marine, I know the cultural challenges you're going to have in the Marine Corps.

Speaker 5: 09:07 Williams, who is African American remembers walking into an empty barracks. His new roommate had a Confederate flag on the wall.

Speaker 6: 09:14 Well, I told them, Hey, listen, this is not going to work out. I'm going to have to leave. And they pulled me out of the room. I got a different roommate, but later on, that person was actually, um, court-martialed okay from actively recruiting into a racist organization

Speaker 5: 09:30 Early in his career at the time William says he didn't think about reporting the incident to his command. He feared he would be the one to get into trouble. Other Marines felt the same way. Francisco Martinez queloz is from San Diego. Originally from the Dominican Republic as a kid, he was attracted to the macho image of the Corps. He remembers talking to a friend of his, in his unit who was consistently being singled out for extra duty. They both agreed. It was for one reason his friend was black. And I actually,

Speaker 6: 10:01 I remember talking to minutes and apologize to him and it got me really emotional because I didn't do anything about it. You know, I didn't speak up

Speaker 5: 10:10 In conversations with a number of retired Marines. It's a common story. 10 years ago, Travis horror was at an isolated post in Helmand province, Afghanistan like horror. Most of the unit was white. You remember his fellow Marines repeatedly complaining about their African American corpsman, the Navy term for medic, or it says he remembers defending the Corman after seeing him help save the life of an Afghan woman.

Speaker 6: 10:34 So why are you giving him a hard time? Okay. Um, probably not as much as I should have in retrospect, but Mmm. Like again, I was young and

Speaker 5: 10:48 Stefan Williams, the retired Marine who still works with military leaders on issues of racist. It's still a difficult conversation to have.

Speaker 6: 10:56 First, let me tell you why people don't say something. They look at what they're willing to lose to do the right thing. You know, do I want to lose this about if I speak out because those people are actually factors in your, in your career. If you're gonna get promoted, if you're not, you don't get to do duty station. If you're not, how long are you going to be with them? How hard they're going to make it for you. So it's very, we're a little different because a lot of people have power around us, but we talk about intestinal fortitude all the time and moral courage all the time.

Speaker 5: 11:28 Quintin henna was a Sergeant. He left the Marines in December after four years in the Corps, like other Marines. And it says there has been changed, but it's been slow for him. An honest open conversation is the key. It binds together people and it binds together units or shops.

Speaker 6: 11:48 And when you don't have that connection where you can talk to someone

Speaker 7: 11:52 Or a friendly conversation at all times, and not just be weight related, it could diminish relationships between shops. It could diminish relationships between

Speaker 5: 12:04 He welcomed the ban on the Confederate flag, but he says the core is no worse or no better than any other American institution when it comes to handling race. Meanwhile, secretary of defense, Mark Esper recently announced that he was ordering the Pentagon to take yet another look at how racial dynamics play out across the military. Steve Walsh, KPBS news.

Speaker 1: 12:26 This story was produced by the American Homefront project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the corporation for public broadcasting. Our partners that I knew source recently reported about a controversy at the San Diego VA VA doctors are removing suicidal veterans from a lifesaving drug and transitioning them to what some claim is a less effective nasal spray. Now I knew source investigative reporter, Brad Racino has found the VA is lying about its reasons.

Speaker 8: 13:10 My temperament is not the best. I'm angry. I am full of rage.

Speaker 7: 13:18 Tom Yohan is a 73 year old air force veteran whose depression and suicidal thoughts have plagued him for decades. He's tried medications, electroconvulsive therapy and other treatments, nothing helped until he found ketamine. The Ramona vet says the drug was like a rebirth.

Speaker 8: 13:37 My mind was refreshed. I could think I had compassion. I could see colors. Um, I wasn't afraid to be around people.

Speaker 7: 13:47 Ketamine is an effective and rapid treatment for depression and suicidal thoughts, which is why the San Diego VA has for years sent dozens of high risk veterans like Johan to the Kadima neuro psychiatry Institute. The LA Jolla clinic is run by a recognized expert in ketamine treatment. Dr. David Pfeifle.

Speaker 8: 14:07 Yeah, that, that, that man to me is an anointed man directly from God.

Speaker 7: 14:14 But in, I knew source investigation found the VA recently began pulling those vets from [inaudible] care with little to no warning to put them on a nasal spray called provato. The alternative drug is not working for the vets. And in some cases increasing their suicidal thoughts. The VA decision sparked one veteran suicide in October.

Speaker 8: 14:35 And if, if anybody cared about us, it's the only time would be if, if 10 of us kill herself at one time,

Speaker 7: 14:46 We asked the San Diego VA, why it made this decision. The agency's responses were conflicting and false. At first, the VA claimed it could offer similar services at its LA Jolla hospital records. We obtained show that isn't true. The VA also said they had talked about a transition plan with the vets whose lives would be offended by this decision emails and interviews with veterans and the Kadima staff. Don't back that up. Those who've tried and failed. The VA's treatments are now desperate to return to [inaudible] care, but the VA is saying, no,

Speaker 1: 15:19 That's yeah, patients who are captured patients, they can't leave. They can't go to a hospital down the street.

Speaker 7: 15:26 Dwight Sterling is the CEO of the center for law and military policy, a nonprofit think tank in Huntington beach.

Speaker 1: 15:33 So here we take the, you know, the vets who are hurt the most as a result of their service. And we put them into a system on the hospital side where they have no rights to hold their doctors, uh, to account whatsoever.

Speaker 7: 15:50 Last week, the VA abruptly gave a different reason for switching from ketamine Desperado. It said Kadima gave ketamine through an injection and not an IV because that's not what the VA had authorized. The clinic can't treat the veterans. The agency's records show that isn't true. VA psychiatrist and its top administrators have repeatedly authorized injections, academia.

Speaker 1: 16:13 It was clear to me that the VA has been caught in a lie and they are doing exactly what they always do in such a situation, which is to try to get the reporter who, you know, has them, you know, caught, uh, no off their backs.

Speaker 7: 16:31 The house veteran's affairs committee is looking into what's happening in San Diego and local members of Congress are aware of the situation, but veterans like Johan continue to come forward. Hoping someone will take action. Sterling. The think tank CEO says he expects nothing will change unless Congress threatens the VA budget.

Speaker 1: 16:51 It's the population that we should be caring about the most. We have a system where we care about them. The least

Speaker 7: 16:58 The VA will not respond to questions about its contradictory or false statements, and is continuing with a plan to remove all veterans from Kadima by the end of September for KPBS. I'm my new source. Investigative reporter, Brad, Racino

Speaker 1: 17:15 More on this story is coming up on the KPBS round table at 1230. If you or someone you know, is considering suicide call the national suicide prevention hotline at +1 800-273-8255.

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KPBS Midday Edition

KPBS Midday Edition is a daily talk show hosted by Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon, keeping San Diegans in the know on everything from politics to the arts.