Juan Reynoso speaks to the Valley Center-Pauma Unified School District board at a meeting Thursday, June 23, 2022.
Juan Reynoso speaks to the Valley Center-Pauma Unified School District board at a meeting Thursday, June 23, 2022. / Photo by Catherine Allen

On a day meant to raise awareness to unsolved cases of missing and murdered Native American people, a group of Native students at Valley Center Middle School were met with ethnic slurs and harassment, underscoring what parents say are longstanding issues with discrimination, disparity and a lack of culutral competency at schools in the Valley Center-Pauma Unified School District. 

On May 5, nationally recognized as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, students showed up to campus dressed in red, with red paint on their hands and faces, a color that brings awareness to something critical affecting Native lives. Around lunchtime, students participating in the awareness day were called “featherheads” and were heckled with comments about how the murdered Native women “deserved what they got.” 

Days later, District Superintendent Ron McCowan told the Valley Roadrunner that “nobody got hurt.” 

“We’re working through it,” he told the local newspaper. “There were ​​no fisticuffs. Nobody got punched. It was a verbal altercation. Staff stepped in to prevent that from happening.” 

At the time, neither the school nor the district issued a public statement addressing what the district planned to do about the incident or mentioned the ethnic slurs. District officials recently told Voice of San Diego that since the incident, they have implemented cultural competency training for staff and teachers.

But family members, former students and other advocates have packed into Valley Center High School’s library to speak at school board meetings for months since the incident, demanding officials address long-standing disparities, discrimination issues and poor cultural competency among its staff and non-Native students. 

Ahead of a Valley Center Pauma Unified School District board meeting on Thursday, June 23, 2022, Victor Hernandez joined a group of advocates to raise awareness to inequities in the district. / Photo by Catherine Allen
Ahead of a Valley Center Pauma Unified School District board meeting on Thursday, June 23, 2022, Victor Hernandez joined a group of advocates to raise awareness to inequities in the district. / Photo by Catherine Allen

The school is part of the North County TK-12 Valley Center-Pauma Unified School District, where about nine percent of all students are Native. But by suspension, chronic absenteeism or graduation rates, Native students within the Valley Center-Pauma district are falling behind their peers.

Juan Reynoso “Nemuuly” of the Ipai Kumeyaay tribe, remembered his nephew coming home the day of the incident in May, and told him about the name-calling and emotional abuse they’d received from non-Native peers.  

Reynoso was taken aback, but not surprised. As a former student at the district and now an educator himself, Reynoso said he’s seen his share of discrimination on campus. Twenty years ago, he recalled, he took a break from a heavy course load for one semester as his parents went through a divorce. A teacher consoled him by saying the “one thing going” for him when it came to college acceptance was that he was Native American. 

Reynoso said the district’s and school’s response to what happened that day was weak. 

“That really erases the experience of what actually occurred, and it doesn’t do anything to fix the narrative of what we’re trying to achieve here,” Reynoso said. 

The students joined community organizers in a walkout a few days later — in protest not just of the treatment on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Day but also to demand action on a range of problems.  

Native Students are Falling Behind in the District 

Because of the Valley Center-Pauma district’s large share of Native students, it receives about $1.5 million a year in federal funding, meant to compensate for the loss in local property tax revenue on reservations. But that money isn’t tied to any specific group of students. 

“That money is really to offset your general budget,” McCowan said. And as a result, it funds things that impact all students — like paying teachers and providing buses, McCowan said.

The district does, however, receive a much smaller pot of money to help Native students specifically — $144,813 in a Title VI grant. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in any federally-funded programs. The district has a Title VI Advisory Committee made up of eight aides and parents, and the district is hiring one more. These aides tutor Native students and provide extra help in the classroom.

Nonetheless, multiple metrics show how Native students in the district are falling behind. 

Native students within the Valley Center Pauma Unified School District had a suspension rate of 12.6 percent in 2018, which was reduced to 8.6 percent in 2019, the district reported. Other ethnicities followed a similar trend in a declining suspension rate, yet Native students’ suspensions remained much higher than the district’s overall suspension rate of 3.6 percent in 2019. Native students have a seven percent average suspension rate statewide.

Native students also often have a lower graduation rate and attendance rate than students overall in the district.  In 2019, 15.7 percent of students in the district were chronically absent — with Native students and students with disabilities at the top of that list, according to the district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan, or LCAP, a state-mandated plan laying out a school’s goals and spending over a three-year period.

There are five reservations around Valley Center: San Pasqual, Rincon, La Jolla, Pauma and Pala. Each reservation has an education center, a nonprofit program that provides culturally relevant curriculum and teaching methods, as well as after school care, to Native students.  

The education centers themselves, though, are a product of the disparities in Native communities. That’s a reality reflected in the state’s very own education code, which established the creation of such centers. It states that Native students “have not succeeded well in California public schools,” as evidenced by low academic achievement at all grade levels and high dropout rates. 

Parents and advocates have said that the district is not doing enough to abide by this education code and support Native students. 

The district’s LCAP says it will work with the Title VI committee to gain a “deeper understanding of the Native American culture and developing strategies to engage students in their learning.” 

Parents Want More Representation Among Those Who Teach Their Children

(Left to right) Valley Center-Pauma Unified School District board Vice President Julie Stroh and Superintendent Ron McCowan at a Thursday, June 23, 2022, meeting.
(Left to right) Valley Center-Pauma Unified School District board Vice President Julie Stroh and Superintendent Ron McCowan at a Thursday, June 23, 2022, meeting. / Photo by Catherine Allen

None of Valley Center’s office or paraprofessional staff members are Native American, according to California Department of Education data. Parents and advocates have also pointed out the district’s lack of Native representation among teachers, leading to the lack of cultural understanding about its student population. 

Kathy Michaels, with the North County chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, has been attending school board meetings along with the many Native community members. 

“What are you doing to try to recruit those teachers?” Michaels asked the board at an August meeting. 

McCowan, the superintendent, told Voice of San Diego the district isn’t doing anything specific to recruit Native teachers. They notify local groups and colleges when they have job openings — for both teachers and support staff, who work with students daily. 

“We try to get all those job openings out into our community, because we want our community to be reflected in our hiring process,” McCowan said. 

There’s only one teacher on special assignment working part-time with Native students from six different schools. Last year, that teacher, a member of the Rincon tribe, worked mostly with the middle school, and this year will be working more with the high school. She helps with diversifying curriculum and meets with students and teachers to monitor the success of Native students, McCowan explained. 

“So obviously, she doesn’t have the ability to actually do a whole lot of work with any of the Native students,” Michaels said.

McCowan said it’s important for their teachers to “understand the historical trauma” and local tribal history, because then “they’ll better understand the students and that’ll help them to better serve” them. 

McCowan said this is the objective of the staff training that the district implemented after the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Persons Day demonstration. 

McCowan said they implemented cultural competency training for support staff and were planning on having teachers go through training this school year to educate them on Native history and its effects. 

“Until I got involved, I had no idea some of the things that the Natives have been through,” Michaels said. “I’m sure that many of these teachers don’t, either.” 

In August, the district took three new administrative hires to meet with the ed centers and listen to a presentation outlining the job of the ed centers and how school staff can support them. McCowan said more than a hundred staff from the district were present, with about 40 people from the ed centers.

Local professors and Title VI parents have also given presentations to the school board and grade 6-12 teachers, with a training set for K-5 teachers, too. McCowan said they’ve also tapped into county resources for training.

This training through the San Diego County Office of Education focuses on attendance and building trust with Native families and has happened in previous school years as well. 

A big goal with these training sessions is to understand different learning styles in Native culture and how those methods can help Native students succeed. 

The district also learned about how to work with Native students and not hold cultural differences against them — for example, a death in the family may cause a Native student to miss school for a longer time than those of American culture. 

Advocates who have continuously shown up at board meetings have said the issues plaguing Valley Center these days are part of a larger history of Indigenous oppression. 

Growing up, Bobby Wallace, a Native Kumeyaay, said he’d have to “suck it up” if he was treated poorly. Having seen his nephew go through the school district facing similar treatment, Wallace said it’s time for that to change. 

“It has to stop,” Wallace said. “Our kids are not treated equally.” 

Victor Hernandez stood with his son outside the Valley Center Pauma Unified School District board meeting in June, forming a circle that represents connectivity and equality among the two dozen or so people who took part.  

They prayed together and spoke of the importance of urging the district for change. 

Hernandez’s son, who started at Valley Center Middle School recently, stood with him. Hernandez said they’re still fighting to “show his son he’s not alone.”  

“If there is no justice for the students, there will be no peace for the district,” Hernandez said. “The fight continues, it doesn’t end with us, and it’ll continue with him.” 

McCowan said that while they don’t like where Native students are at with test scores, attendance and other metrics, the district is “making an effort” in working with its Title VI committee and education centers to make Native students more successful. 

“We have a lot of great things going on up here,” McCowan said. “We’re not there yet.” 

Catherine Allen is an intern at Voice of San Diego.

Join the Conversation


  1. I think if you check into it, their summer school was set up to help kids entering college not for any student needing to improve low grades.

  2. Maybe the natives should instead, learn practical life skills, like rain dancing, building mud huts, bow & arrow proficiency, etc…. Generations before them survived this way, and besides, it allows them to honor and keep their traditions alive!

  3. This is unacceptable. In this day and age for Native Students, or any time, to be treated like this unthinkable.
    I am heart sick to read this it is going on in our town, or any town. If we don’t respect our children the future of this country and the world are doomed to fail in all aspects of our lives. Why is there so much dislike and or hatred towards other people? An age-old question, but not answering it will only make things worse.

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