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Students and teachers shout down San Leandro school board after firing of popular principal

Police called as protesters disrupt meeting and threaten hunger strike

San Leandro High School students flooded a San Leandro Unified School District board meeting on November 14 in support of their principal, Dr. Ronald Richardson, who was dismissed by the board days earlier. (Will McCarthy/Bay Area News Group)
San Leandro High School students flooded a San Leandro Unified School District board meeting on November 14 in support of their principal, Dr. Ronald Richardson, who was dismissed by the board days earlier. (Will McCarthy/Bay Area News Group)
Will McCarthy is a Bay Area News Group reporter who covers Alameda County

Police were called to a chaotic San Leandro Unified school district board meeting Tuesday night as hundreds of San Leandro High School students and teachers protested the dismissal of their beloved principal, Dr. Ronald Richardson.

Over the course of the evening, students and teachers shouted down board president Peter Oshinski, threatened to go on a hunger strike, and reduced Superintendent Michael McLaughin to bargaining–and even begging–for the crowd to allow the meeting to continue.

It was a striking scene, as primarily Black and Brown students excoriated a mostly white board for dismissing a Black principal who they say served as a role model, made them feel safe, and turned San Leandro High School around.

According to parents at San Leandro High School, Richardson, affectionately known by the community as “R.O.,” was put on leave without explanation a few weeks ago. Then on Sunday night, parents were informed by email that Richardson “would not be returning to SLHS”.

About 200 people gathered at San Leandro City Hall Wednesday night for the board meeting to protest the decision.

Prior to the meeting, the school board made available a five-page summary of their investigation into complaints against Richardson. The report, which was completed by an outside investigator, stated that the district received complaints about Richardson at the end of September that included “inappropriate communications with a subordinate regarding their personal life”, “failing to respond appropriately to student safety and disciplinary situations”, and possible deletion of student disciplinary records.

The report also detailed an incident in which Richardson allegedly made a threatening comment to a subordinate after they had submitted a formal complaint against him, and then tried to cover it up.

But students and teachers at the school board meeting on Tuesday expressed outrage that they had not been canvassed during the course of the investigation, framing it as a smear campaign by an aggrieved individual.

“We have a completely different narrative than what you heard,” said Jenna Hewitt King, a teacher at San Leandro High School.

At the outset, the meeting was relatively tame. Students sat holding signs in support of Richardson as the board read its mission statement. During public comment, dozens of students rose to share what their principal had meant to them, and to the school.

A longtime employee said Richardson had been the best administrator the school has had in 20 years. One student said Richardson had helped them when they were considering suicide. Another said he served as a father figure at the school.

As the board president struggled to pronounce the names of students called up to public comment, each praised Richardson as a man who took the time to get to know them personally.

Speakers were expected to have three minutes, but board president Oshinski said he would limit that to one minute due to the number of speakers. The meeting began to devolve when Oshinksi tried to enforce that time limit.

Students shouted down the board president when he tried to cut off one student, a sophomore. Soon after, when the room had broken out into chants of ‘No R.O., No Peace’, the superintendent left the room, and board president Oshinski called a 15-minute recess.

By the end of that recess, three San Leandro police officers had entered the building, and stood between the students and the board members. That did little to diminish the tension, as students booed their arrival and shouted through megaphones.

In one notable moment, Erica Viray Santos, a former teacher of the year, said she would also be going on a hunger strike until Dr. Richardson was reinstated.

“This right here is the investigation you should have done,” Viray Santos said, pointing to the crowd.

By the end of the evening, the superintendent was negotiating directly with the crowd, promising a statement about next steps by Friday, and a future meeting to discuss Dr. Richardson’s status.

“There’s a reason we go through our steps, it’s not just to protect the school district, it’s to protect people,” superintendent McLaughin said.

Students eventually left the building around 9:30 p.m.

Prior to the meeting, Aaleya Gaphoor, a parent at the school, said Richardson was an extremely well-regarded figure on campus. According to Gaphoor, Richardson had changed the culture of the school along with his twin brother, a co-principal. Together they established a zero tolerance policy for racism and policies founded in restorative justice that emphasized growth rather than punishment.

“They’ve worked so hard turning the school around over the course of 9 years,” Gaphoor said. “It would be a huge loss at San Leandro High if we lose him.”