Johnston students want support, respect from the school board

By Nikoel Hytrek

October 26, 2023

A lot of school board election coverage gives weight to who the candidates are and what they stand for, but students want to know when people will listen to them.

The Johnston School District held a candidate forum at Johnston High School last week, where all eight school board candidates answered questions about how they would handle a variety of issues including what qualifies them for the role, the importance of initiatives to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), district safety and how to improve mental and physical health, among others.

Some Johnston students came out to watch, and they had a few takeaways about the candidates, their stated goals, and what school boards should be.

“Many of the candidates tonight were talking about, ‘Oh yes, we’re going to speak to the parents, we’re going to speak to faculty, we’re going to speak to teachers, we’re going to speak to admin volunteers, etc.’ But they didn’t mention speaking to students when their decisions directly affect us,” said Jacob Grauerholz, a Johnston senior.

He said that as a student in the district, he doesn’t feel respected or listened to by district leadership, and he wants that changed.

“They are not in our shoes,” Grauerholz said. “They don’t go to this school, they don’t walk these halls every day, they don’t sit in these classrooms, they aren’t fed the curriculum like we are.”

He said every member of the school board should be willing to talk to students about their experiences in the district, which isn’t currently the case.

The Johnston School Board includes two student representatives, but Grauerholz knows them and said they often don’t feel valued or respected by the other members. He said that needs to change.

“I think that is extremely unfair, given that these students are our only representation really on that board,” he said.

Shiloh Hillabolt, also a Johnston senior, agrees.

High school has been stressful for him as a trans student, he said, especially now with state laws restricting trans students’ rights to be themselves.

Hillabolt has spoken to the board a few times about issues such as book bans and the need for DEI in the schools. He said his sophomore year was “not very good at all” because of the issues around the school board. He also said school changed a lot in the past two years.

“It seems like they make rules without listening to students’ opinions and experiences,” Hillabolt said.

A lot of Hillabolt’s issues in school come from other students and he said he had trouble finding people who understood him or could support him.

“It’s frightening to go to a school where, especially with laws in place, there’s no real support,” he said.

Hillabolt isn’t the only one who thinks the school could and should do better to support students.

Johnston senior Ayla Hanson said the school is good overall, but there’s a lot of room for improvement.

“The mental health support is incredibly lacking,” they said. “The support for students in their home lives is at times lacking. The accessibility here is somewhat lacking.”

As a student with disabilities, Hanson said some of their accommodations were hard to get and weren’t implemented well in the classroom.

They said teachers should have more training in supporting students with disabilities and in handling bullying.

“I would love to see the district move in directions that include more DEI training,” Hanson said. “I am an LGBTQ+ student, and I have been called slurs in front of staff members and had those staff members not address the situation.”

Grauerholz said he was disappointed that so many of the conservative candidates tried to twist the meaning of DEI and downplay how it could help the district.

“DEI is an incredible tool when used correctly,” he said. “A lot of the candidates were kind of just ignoring the necessity of DEI, and kind of brushing it off as something that we can live without and doesn’t really need to be there.”

Hanson said incumbent Soneeta Mangra-Dutcher’s focus on promoting kindness would also be a big improvement because hate speech and fighting are problems in the school building.

“Our voices need to be heard as students. Reducing the curriculum or banning parts of the curriculum, reducing what we are being taught is just not beneficial,” they said.

School board elections are on Nov. 7 and four seats are open. Four Moms for Liberty candidates are running and could tip the majority on the board toward a far-right agenda. The other four include two incumbents and two community members who want to serve all the district’s students.

  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].

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