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Students are resisting Black and LGBTQ erasure in one of California's whitest counties

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

High school students in one of California's whitest counties are working to elect a new school board this Tuesday. They want to defeat those who have failed to stop racist and homophobic bullying inside schools. KQED's Julia McEvoy reports these students are backing candidates who take their concerns seriously.

JULIA MCEVOY, BYLINE: Nevada Union High has about 1,500 students; 80% of them are white.

THOMAS GRUVER: I had a student say, let's lynch Tommy.

MCEVOY: Thomas Gruver is white and Afro-Latino. He was a freshman at Nevada Union last year when he hit his limit.

GRUVER: Kids that were LGBTQ+ getting, like, rocks thrown at them at lunch, things like that.

MCEVOY: Frustration also started building four years ago for Anthony Pritchett. He's Filipino and white. He remembers one incident in particular from freshman year.

ANTHONY PRITCHETT: I've been given a noose. Someone tied a noose for me at lunch and gave it to me. And I was just hanging out with my friends at school at lunch - kind of, like, almost, like, a casual manner to - just like, oh, here's a noose, man. Look how funny this is.

MCEVOY: These incidents took place in Grass Valley, Calif., in Nevada County outside Sacramento. They drove both Gruver and Pritchett to realize they had to stand up and try to change school culture. They began organizing here in the school library. Pritchett got himself elected as student board trustee so he could have a voice. Thomas Gruver started speaking up at board meetings. Others helped convince the principal, Kelly Rhoden, to hold anti-bias trainings.

KELLY RHODEN: Our whole staff has been in all of these meetings. It wasn't just - it's not just our teachers.

MCEVOY: In response, the district launched an anti-racism and inclusion task force. Then the backlash began. A newly formed group called Protecting American Ideals started speaking up at board meetings. One member of the group was Judy Wood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUDY WOOD: Equity divides people by race and it ensures race-based equality of outcomes.

MCEVOY: That meeting last November got raucous. So many showed up, it had to be moved from a classroom to a school gym.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Accused me of being racist...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you. Thank you. I'm sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Because I was a white married man.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Your time is up.

MCEVOY: The Nevada County Tea Party had rallied a couple of hundred. They came with anti-critical race theory buttons and waving American flags. Anti-racist student activists and their supporters also showed up in force and did jazz hands whenever their people spoke since applause wasn't allowed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sir, your time is up. Please respect our board rules. Please respect our board rules.

PRITCHETT: It was terrifying. It was genuinely terrifying.

MCEVOY: Anthony Pritchett watched the crowd of some 400 in horror.

PRITCHETT: Bodyguards are, like, escorting people away from us a couple times, like, when things got very tense.

MCEVOY: Students didn't give up. At another meeting, they proposed a stronger anti-bullying policy that included discipline for microaggressions. In May, the school board rejected that policy change. And that is when this Tuesday's election took on new meaning for Pritchett.

PRITCHETT: Because now we have a chance to put people that will listen into a position of power.

MCEVOY: Students are supporting three candidates, including Pritchett's mom, Olivia. The group Protecting American Ideals is backing three other candidates, all of whom declined interview requests. Anthony Pritchett is now a freshman at UC Berkeley. He says he and a lot of his old high school friends will be voting back home.

PRITCHETT: So absentee ballots have been something that we've all been trying to figure out, us new college freshmen.

MCEVOY: At Nevada Union High in Grass Valley, Thomas Gruver, who is still too young to vote, says he's talking with anyone he can about the election.

GRUVER: What's at stake is really the student's voice.

MCEVOY: He says it's not just about him. It's about his 7-year-old sister, who is also white and Afro-Latina. Gruver says she was recently asked by a classmate, what are you?

GRUVER: I mean, for my sister, honestly, it terrifies me that something like that was already said to her because, in a way, that's, like, that's my little girl, too. You know, that's kind of my kid, so...

MCEVOY: Gruver says over the past year, he's learned to be brave. He has to, he says, so that his little sister can look forward to high school. For NPR News, I'm Julia McEvoy in Grass Valley, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julia McEvoy