Thirteen students were suspended from Design Tech High School (d.tech) in Redwood City, California. These students, along with many others, protested the school’s new policies on Aug. 24, prompting allegations of disruptive behavior and the harassment of a staff member.
Eleven of the 13 have subsequently transferred to various high schools across the Bay Area; most of them are seniors.
During the lunchtime protest, a large crowd paraded signs and chanted in disapproval of the d.tech administration and its new policies.
One of the policies that d.tech recently implemented is its e-hall passes; digital hall passes requiring students to request to leave the classroom via their computers. These hall passes enable d.tech staff to know where every student is at all times, and the e-hall pass website claims that this tracking helps “to limit mischief, meetups, vaping, vandalism, and much more.”
According to Victor*, a d.tech student and suspended protester, e-hall passes can be inconvenient. Victor’s and others’ names have been altered to protect them from possible repercussions in accordance with Carlmont’s anonymous sourcing policy.
“If someone has a bad day and they’re crying or not feeling good, and they need to go throw up or something, they can’t go on their computer real quick; they just need to go,” Victor said. “And especially for upperclassmen who will be legal adults soon, we’re being treated like children.”
Students also report feeling violated and frustrated by d.tech’s use of GoGuardian, a software that allows teachers to see students’ computer screens.
“It blocks a bunch of websites. It’s really frustrating when you’re trying to do stuff that it doesn’t let you do,” said Jordan*, a d.tech senior. “Personally, I think it’s a bigger problem than the Yondr pouches.”
The pouches Jordan referred to are part of one of the main policies the students protested. Implemented at the start of the 2022-2023 academic year, d.tech’s Yondr policy requires students to put their cell phones in a locked “Yondr pouch” at the beginning of the day, and they are unable to access their phones until day’s end.
“One of the main arguments was that most seniors are 18; we’re going to go to college soon, and we have to learn how to live on our own. Taking our phones away and treating us like we’re five is kind of ridiculous,” Jordan said.
The protest was not the first time d.tech saw opposition to the Yondr policy. According to Victor, d.tech polled parents on the prospect of Yondr last summer. Victor noted that the vast majority disapproved of the policy, but it was still established.
However, the implementation of Yondr was not unfounded. Peyton*, a transfer from d.tech, affirmed that students were unreceptive to consistent requests that they don’t use their phones during class last year.
“I can’t stress enough how kids had been on their phones during every class for the entire year,” Peyton said. “They had been given multiple heads up that they should stop before something happens.”
Nonetheless, Yondr has deeply upset many students and they direct much of this anger towards the person who implemented the aforementioned policies, the student culture coordinator. According to Jordan, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the position in the past.
“That position has been kind of rocky since I started school. We’ve had three or four since my freshman year. It’s always changing. And no one ever really seems happy with the person in that position,” Jordan said.
Liam*, a d.tech student, noted that these conflicts likely stem from a lack of effective trust and communication within the d.tech community.
“The culture of d.tech has a lot of broken trusts, where the students don’t trust the faculty, and the faculty don’t trust the students, and none of them communicate with each other,” Liam said.
While students’ disapproval of the d.tech administration runs deep, the Aug. 24 protest was planned relatively last minute. According to Victor, the terms of the protest were unclear and subject to change.
“It was originally supposed to be a walkout, but it kind of just turned into a protest,” Victor said. “We were also originally going to do it during first period but changed it to lunch. So we weren’t disturbing any classes or anything.”
All communication was via a group chat on school computers. Protesters made threatening remarks in jest about the school and its administration, which they attest to having had no intention of executing.
“They were texting ‘we should go like mob [the student culture coordinator’s] room,’ and this one kid said something like ‘this is gonna become a terrorist attack’ as a joke. I don’t know why they didn’t realize that the teachers were going to see all of this,” Victor said.
These messages had very different implications for the different parties involved. While the students may have seen them as jokes, the administration took them seriously.
“It’s just a bunch of high school boys joking about how they’re going to do something with no intention of actually doing it. But in the administration’s and the teachers’ eyes, that looks like they’re going to do it,” Jordan said.
Another element of the protest that d.tech believed warranted disciplinary action was when students began breaking open their Yondr pouches.
“There was this magnet to unlock all the Yondr pouches. My friend had the magnet, so everybody unlocked their phones because they were trying to rebel,” Victor said.
While opening the Yondr pouches is an undisputed example of protesters breaking school policy, the harassment of a teacher prompted some debate.
According to Victor, who was in the front of the crowd during the protest, no one intentionally touched a staff member. He described how the person at the very front of the group was pushed into the student culture coordinator by the crowd, raising their hands and saying, “It’s not me. I’m being pushed. I’m being pushed.”
Despite no confirmation of physical harassment, the student culture coordinator did have reason to feel targeted by the protest’s chants. According to multiple students and an email sent to the d.tech community, one of the chants was “Hey, ho, hey, ho, [the administrator’s name] has got to go.”
D.tech administration refused to share its account of the events of Aug. 24 but instead expressed the school’s view on the protest.
“Design Tech does not tolerate harassment of any of its community members including students, staff, parents or caregivers,” the statement read.
The actions and emotions of those involved in the protest and the administration’s response had immense impacts on the outcome of the conflict, including transferring students, numerous suspensions, and expulsion hearings.
When lunch ended, the protest ended. Several students attest that those not involved with the protest were able to return to a normal rest of their school day. However, this was not the case for 13 students accused of violating school policies during the protest.
“There were 13 of us. We were all being suspended and told we would have expulsion hearings. Eleven students unenrolled and transferred, and two decided to stay. I think that because so many left, they just dropped the expulsion hearings for the two staying, and for me, they expunged it from my record,” said Victor.
Of the two staying, one was suspended for five days and was not allowed to return to class for two weeks. The other was suspended four days later than the first, but they both returned on Sept. 8.
Additional repercussions for the suspended protestors staying at d.tech include an essay about the protest and how it was harmful to the teacher, 10 hours of community service, and weekly check-ins.
D.tech suspended Victor on the grounds of vandalism, harassment, and protest organization.
Other suspended students felt that the suspensions were justifications for leaving. One of those students is Devyn*, who didn’t stay long enough to learn the specifics of his suspension.
“They gave me a two-day suspension for being on the group chat without texting on it and being towards the front of the protest without saying anything. I didn’t get that far into the specifics. The fact that they suspended me was pretty ridiculous. I wanted to get out of there,” said Devyn.
D.tech didn’t address any grounds for suspension in a statement responding to an interview request: “We can’t discuss the details of any student discipline matter.”
The administration, being that of a public charter school, is liable to be sued if any of the suspensions they give violate the First Amendment.
While protesting or organizing a protest are rights protected by the First Amendment, regulating certain types of student expression is still at the school’s discretion.
They can suppress speech or expression if they deem it interferes with a school’s ability to function, which could include physical harm, captive audience, disruption of school-sponsored activities or class time, threat, and destruction of school property.
When it comes to physical harm, the school addressed that they believe harassment occurred, but only in the context of the “hey hey, ho ho” chant.
“When [policy changes weren’t met with immediate approval] in the past, the community worked together to reach a common goal and never harassed staff members in such a way,” a d.tech administrative statement read.
Because the chant was targeting a position rather than a specific person, it’s too general to be considered threatening if brought to court.
“If the students are saying we want change and then part of the change is a change in personnel, then that’s protected by the First Amendment,” said Mike Hiestand, the president of the Student Press Law Center.
Another thing Hiestand points out that matters in cases of protest and use of profane language at school is whether it disrupts school-sponsored time or has a captive audience.
“Nobody had to be in this protest. If somebody was offended by the use of profanity, they could have left. That’s also something that courts look at: if it’s at a captive audience,” Hiestand said.
The students used profanity in their expression of disagreement with school policy.
“We said ‘F*** d.tech, F*** Yondr, and F*** e-hall pass,'” Victor said.
According to Hiestand, the First Amendment protects this use and setting of profanity.
“If it wasn’t threatening, certainly any students that simply protested the policy, but even those who used profanity are protected [during a not school-sponsored activity,]” Hiestand said.
The protest occurred during lunchtime, a free period, meaning it didn’t disrupt school-sponsored activities.
Despite no physical threat, captive audience, or disruption of class time, certain actions surrounding the protest fell outside the First Amendment’s protection.
“Courts definitely don’t like threats; threatening language, that sort of thing. Even in jest, those are things that can change otherwise protected speech and put it into that protected category,” Heistand said.
The group chat with threatening jokes about the student culture coordinator would give the school complete justification for the suspension of students. Even though it wasn’t part of the protest’s language, it made that person’s speech unprotected.
“Phone use would be a violation of school rules. So I mean, somebody who did that can be held accountable for that,” Hiestand said.
Several students took their phones out of the Yondr pouches with a magnet. Any student that did that could be held accountable with suspension. On top of that, if any student broke a Yondr pouch to get to their phone, that would constitute as the destruction of school property or vandalism.
If a student who didn’t take out their phone or participate in threatening language on the group chat was suspended as a direct consequence of the protest, then the school would be violating First Amendment rights.
“I think if we were coming at the teacher, if we were actually harassing the teacher, then I completely understand where they’re coming from. But nothing was pointed directly to them. They had no physical harm that happened to her. They said they felt unsafe, but nobody was coming towards her whatsoever. It is our First Amendment right to say what we want. They are our teachers, but at the same time, they can’t tell us if we want to protest or not,” Jordan said.
The administration’s response in the following weeks of Aug. 24 to the protest didn’t only affect the protestors; it affected d.tech’s entire community.
Liam, Jordan, Devyn, Johnathan*, and Victor all confirm the racial discrimination accusations in the statement.
“There was a presentation given to me about good versus bad protests. And we were shown a bunch of like good activists,” said Johnathan, a d.tech student who protested but wasn’t suspended. “At the end, there was a picture of white supremacists, and they pointed out, and they quote, the plan. This is not what good protests are online. So it felt like we were being compared to white supremacists, which was insane.”
The statement also outlined several new policies, including a suspension for taking a phone out of the pouch without any prior repercussions and the three strikes you’re out rule.
Following the statement was some limited and heavily directed discussion about the protest.
“They allowed us to talk about it for a bit in some classes, and everyone disagreed with the staff. They asked us to write what we wanted to change and like our opinions. But everyone was disagreeing, and so far, nothing has happened, so I didn’t even write anything on it,” Liam said.
That day was not the end of community response to the protest. The school’s inconsistency aggravated parents; a later statement sent out to parents was less thorough and didn’t mention new policies or racial motivations.
“Someone actually pulled out their phone from the Yondr pouch and took a picture of the statement. They sent it to their parents, and one parent put it on a Facebook group for other parents to see. Everyone was upset that the school wasn’t sharing that information with the parents. Then [the director] sent out a revised [statement]. It barely had any of the information sent to us in the first statement,” Jordan said.
The school response to parents also included the racial element that students experienced in presentations.
“They said some messed up stuff to my parents. They called them entitled. And they keeped talking about how we have white privilege. Saying I am privileged, privileged and entitled,” Devyn said.
Students who participated in the protest also felt on edge, according to Johnathan, who witnessed breakdowns from students who feared suspension.
“I didn’t feel safe at school. Multiple kids were freaking out,” Johnathan said.
Although the community of staff, students, and parents at d.tech disagreed about the large majority of responses to the protest, one viewpoint they shared was a disfavorable one to the media response by NBCBayArea.
“Then that article came out. It taints the school reputation,” said Alex*, a d.tech student.
Gray*, a former d.tech student who transferred out going into the 2022-2023 school year, shared Alex’s views.
“I was shocked that the news picked it up because they suspended people often at d.tech. There’d be a big controversy every three months or so, and some kids would get suspended. It’s frustrating; NBC really dramatized and misrepresented it. It feels like they just went at it for the story and didn’t try to cover anything else,” said Gray.
Not only was the response to that article negative, but when posted on Instagram, the comment section revealed much contention.
More frustrations were asserted over the school director’s senior town hall meeting to address community concerns. Held during flex time, where the school director addressed the negative sides of the protests and the image of d.tech but fell short of meeting students’ goals of discussing change.
“Many points are brought up about how the protests were bad. One student was saying how they disagreed with the protests but that the protest also started this conversation about the Yondr purchase. But many were upset that all of the people who had these ideas and wanted to make the changes and start those conversations were suspended or not there. It wasn’t really fair to them, and it wasn’t really fair to us,” Jordan said.
D.tech is a school of change; experimenting with new policies is part of the administration’s goal. That change works for some, but for the students who protested on Aug. 24 and the students who felt that the administration’s response to the protest was harmful, the school is no longer their safe place.
“My friend was trying to give feedback to the principal. They said, ‘this school used to be my dream school; now it feels like a nightmare,'” Johnathan said.
*These names were changed by the authors to ensure anonymity for the sources that were interviewed, in accordance with Carlmont Media’s anonymous sourcing policy.
This story was originally published on Scot Scoop News on September 19, 2022.