The campaign to oust the principal of Channel Islands High School for his perceived insensitivity to Latinos is a symptom of changing times that goes beyond the school system.

There are important lessons for the whole community in this dispute. They are lessons that cannot be taught by shouting; they can only be learned by listening.

Ten Latino advocacy groups delivered a letter to Oxnard Union High School District officials demanding removal of Principal Jim Nielsen. Among the accusations: Nielsen quashed efforts by students and educators to celebrate Latino cultural events, violated the free speech of students during a rally, unfairly punished students who walked off campus to protest passage of

Proposition 227 and tried to force out Assistant Principal Chris Gonzalez. The list of concerns is long enough and the spectrum of groups endorsing it is broad enough to warrant serious discussion by the district’s board of trustees. Fortunately, this board is made up of thoughtful, experienced people well able to separate the flak that routinely rains on any principal from serious issues that demand corrective action.

It is important for schools to respect the ethnic pride of their students, so long as expressions of that pride do not eclipse the rights of others or upstage education. But it is at least as important for students and community leaders to respect that the schools have a larger mission.

That mission includes teaching academic skills, which is especially tough in a district such as Oxnard Union where many students face the double challenge of catching up in English while keeping up in everything else.

It includes teaching civic skills, including how to effectively participate in the political process. (Students in several Ventura County classrooms campaigned for or against Proposition 227 while there was time for their opinions to make a difference: before the election.) It includes teaching respect for authority and for other students, as well as self-respect.

To its credit, Oxnard Union has a remarkably low dropout rate of 2.5% despite its large majority of Latino students, who tend to drop out at a higher rate. Clearly, the district is doing many things right. Yet feelings of discontent and discrimination have been voiced by Latino students and parents for years.

It is only in recent years that Ventura County’s school boards, city councils and media have begun to reflect the ethnic makeup of the public they represent. As a result, some issues that once seemed simple (because one point of view drowned out all others) now are understood to be more complex.

Complaints like those outlined in the letter have long been muttered about. Bringing them to the school board is a good step. It is for the Oxnard Union trustees to determine whether these concerns are based on perception or reality, and what action–if any–should be taken.

But this opportunity to openly discuss the matter must not devolve into name-calling and the taking of sides. There is a word for exploring other points of view and trying to deepen one’s understanding. That word is “education.”

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