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Petaluma school district comes under fire after decision to cut valedictorian’s mic

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A crowd of community members blasted the Petaluma school board Tuesday over a Petaluma High School official’s decision to cut the mic of valedictorian who attempted to speak about sexual assault during her commencement address June 2.

Lulabel Seitz, a 17-year-old honors student bound for Stanford University, said she was sexually assaulted on campus by a peer she knew and during the ceremony wanted to air her frustration over what she viewed as a lack of action taken by the administration. But her microphone was shut off four minutes into her graduation speech after deviating from the script she previously submitted. She stepped around the podium to finish her speech, and later posted an “uncensored version” on YouTube.

The incident caught fire on social media and drew coverage by news organizations around the world.

On Tuesday, during the first public board meeting since the speech, her supporters criticized the administration’s handling of the incident, although some parents and community members have argued Seitz’s deviation was an unwelcome interruption to the graduation ceremony.

Petaluma resident Zahyra Garcia, who co-chairs the Indivisible Petaluma activist group and organized dissenters at the meeting, called for the district to instate an independent “sexual assault team” with community members and experts to examine policies and procedures.

“I’d like to see a better policy for sexual assault and follow-up for students and parents,” Garcia said before the meeting. “What were the repercussions for the perpetrator? It was swept under the rug.”

Administrators said students were aware microphones would be cut at graduation if they went off script, and that the action was legal. They argued the school has control over a message if it’s hosting the event.

Because of state open meeting laws, the five school board members could not respond directly to the crowd’s comments Tuesday because the issue wasn’t on the agenda.

However, Trustee Ellen Webster in an interview said she wished “people would pause for a moment and think.”

“Student issues are confidential, our hands are tied no matter what,” she said. “I was shocked by all the attention that the little suburban high school is getting. There are big things going on in the world.”

Tuesday’s meeting comes as a petition calling for the district’s superintendent, Gary Callahan, to replace Petaluma High School principal David Stirrat has gained nearly 9,000 signatures. Stirrat did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Callahan could not be reached for comment.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Seitz, who’s in Anaheim on vacation, said she was heartened by the community’s response. Though she couldn’t attend the meeting, she, too, asked for change.

“In particular, they need to stop exercising Title 9 guidelines and rules at their discretion … this is a serious issue,” she said. “They don’t want to ruin people’s lives, but what they don’t think about is ruining a victim’s future by allowing perpetrators on campus.”

Robert Gallup, whose 17-year-old granddaughter graduated from Casa Grande High School this year and whose 13-year-old grandson is a student at Kenilworth Junior High, carried a sign that read “Vote Them Out.” Three of the five school board members have terms that expire this year.

“Whoever pulled the plug on Lulabel was completely uneducated and out of touch with the 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds in the culture,” Gallup said. “They should absolutely know, for certain, that what would happen is her becoming an international spokesperson for what’s going on related to sexual assault and the women in this county.”

Gallup said Seitz’s message wasn’t a distraction but rather shed light on the zeitgeist of a larger conversation. The #MeToo movement has brought issues of sexual assault and harassment to the forefront of global conversation.

“It wasn’t about her," he told The Press Democrat. "All you have to do is listen to it and watch it … she used the term sexual assault. She really wasn’t going to talk about the specifics of her situation. She was talking about the way it is not handled, and the way it is handled and what the deficits are as an institutional and cultural problem.”

He encouraged the board to “not do the usual thing and say ‘we’re going to study this and get back with a report in three months,’” but instead to apologize to Seitz, her family and the 2018 graduating class.

Lisa Consani, a mother of two students at Petaluma High School and Petaluma Junior High School, expressed concern over “reinforcing the silencing of victims and discourage their speaking up.”

“If anyone in this room thinks we’re here simply because Lulabel didn’t get to finish her valedictorian speech, you’ve missed the point,” she said. “We’re not here because the administration threatened to cut her mic after going off script — we're here because it’s about the school’s fear of the truth coming to light. … It’s about the school’s lackluster support for victims of physical and sexual assault.”

Trustee Frank Lynch directed inquiries to board President Sheri Chlebowski, who has not responded to requests for comment and was not available for comment during the meeting.

Dave Rose, the district’s assistant superintendent of student services, said the district handles each sexual assault complaint by first reporting it to local law enforcement. The school follows up on a case-by-case basis according to state education codes, Rose said.

“Anytime a situation like this occurs, law enforcement has first priority in terms of the investigation and any type of response that takes place. In this case, that absolutely happened,” Rose said of Seitz’s allegations. “Any allegations were thoroughly investigated by law enforcement as well as by the staff.”

The Petaluma Police Department on Tuesday said it would not release reports related to Seitz’s alleged assault.

Rose said he doesn’t feel that policy changes are necessary, saying “there’s no reason for a policy change because this was handled perfectly by law enforcement and by the school.” Last week, he said student privacy laws preclude the district from sharing details about disciplinary actions.

“I’d like to see people use a little bit more common sense before passing judgment,” he said, adding that he’s heard a “tremendous” amount of “supportive” feedback from “people who are actually using common sense and thinking about what we need to do in a situation like this.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misidentified Trustee Ellen Webster.