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Sam Houston High School’s graduation started off Tuesday morning as normally as it possibly could have under the circumstances.
Graduates wearing dark green caps and gowns and masks filed into Alamo Stadium as “Pomp and Circumstance” played over the stadium’s speakers. Audience members spaced 6 feet apart cheered from the stands when their graduate made an entrance.
But students disrupted the typical cadence of the ceremony when Principal Mateen Diop asked the audience to rise for the national anthem and graduates remained in their seats. Not a single student in the Class of 2020 stood, according to several who attended.
Together, the high school graduates sat in protest of police brutality and systematic racism, a display of solidarity organized by seniors Da’Dria Thomas and Jasmine Benton in the weeks preceding commencement.
Thomas and Benton posted on Instagram, encouraging their classmates to sit. They said they felt such a public protest would draw attention to an issue the pair cared deeply about and felt affected the lives of many of their classmates.
Sam Houston is one of San Antonio Independent School District’s most diverse campuses. It serves a population that is 58.2 percent Hispanic, 37.5 percent African American, 1.7 percent white, 1.2 percent Asian, and 1.2 percent two or more races.
“Sam Houston is a majority-minority school so I feel like everybody kind of [saw] where we were coming from, and they wanted to help any way that they could,” Thomas said. “It felt like we have all gone through the same thing. … We all kind of relate.”
Before deciding to stay in her own seat, Thomas asked her dad, who served in the military, how he would feel to see his daughter protesting during the national anthem. He told her that he knew she appreciated his military service and that if she felt she needed to sit, it would be her choice.
During the regular school year, both seniors sat during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Thomas took up the protest this year after Benton spoke to her about why she did it. Benton can’t remember the last time she stood for the flag.
She does remember that the first time she sat came after 2012, when she learned about the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was killed by George Zimmerman while Zimmerman was on neighborhood watch in Florida. It was the first time Benton remembers hearing about the killing of an unarmed black person, but over the years more and more examples of such violence stacked up.
She watched as Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, knelt as the national anthem played before football games. If he, someone with so much to lose, could take such a stand in a public setting, so could students in their classrooms, Benton reasoned.
“I’m not going to stand for something that doesn’t stand for me,” she said. “I can’t pledge to a country that continues to oppress me and my people.”
As graduation approached, Benton and Thomas’ social media posts circulated. The pair didn’t expect everyone to participate and was surprised when they turned around in their seats and saw their classmates’ support. They even saw some audience members who initially stood take their seats as the anthem played.
That was just the beginning of what one educator would describe as the most remarkable graduation ceremony they had seen in several decades of teaching.
Valedictorian Payton Gogo’s speech ensured students would have even more reason to remember their commencement long after they exited the stadium, several classmates said Wednesday. The speech can be viewed here, between the 39- and 42-minute mark.
He began his address to his peers by commending the district on the support it had offered students during the COVID-19 public health crisis.
“However, it feels as though the support was reliant on a global pandemic, and I worry it may not be permanent,” Gogo said. “It is the primary responsibility of the school to educate students, to guide them and support them and when students choose to neglect this opportunity, whether it be due to ignorance or stubbornness, the school should do what they can to motivate them and not leave them behind.”
Gogo continued to say he felt education and guidance were not that important to his high school as long as a student passes.
“In many ways, the administration has allowed themselves to become disconnected from the development of students, allowing misbehavior, disrespect, fights, and drugs to be an ongoing issue,” Gogo said. “In my four years at Sam Houston, I have seen little done to push students toward success, little done to motivate, and little done to prepare students for life beyond high school.”
He did not want to discredit the handful of people who showed care for the success of students but said they were “fighting an uphill battle against the administration’s inability to solve the issues that plague Sam Houston.”
“The schools’ inaction is negligent at the least, and students have been disadvantaged by it,” Gogo said.
Ending his time at the microphone, Gogo asked administration – regardless of whether they agreed with what he said – to not ignore the content of speech. He said he hoped they would take value from student opinions so they could enhance their connection and understanding of the student body.
Sam Houston graduates Devin Brock-Johnson and Dezric Morgan echoed several of their classmates in describing their reaction to Gogo’s message: stunned admiration in saying what needed to be said.
“I wasn’t expecting him to come out [singing] the praises of the school and then completely veer left,” Brock-Johnson said. “It was really inspirational because all of us [were] saying that for like four years.”
Morgan agreed and said he wanted to see change come out of Tuesday’s ceremony.
“Payton was the voice we all needed, to be honest,” Morgan said.
Responding to Gogo’s message, district spokeswoman Leslie Price said SAISD takes his concerns very seriously and that the district is committed to making the changes necessary to support and prepare students for success.
Trustee Alicia Monica Perry, who represents District 2, which spans San Antonio’s East Side, applauded Gogo for giving a heartfelt speech that voiced his class’s concerns.
“Now is the time that, as leaders, we open our ears, minds, and hearts to what young people are saying and build a solid bridge of communication and work collectively to address their needs – especially since we live with this ‘New Reality’ with COVID-19, strained race relations, and the constant shifts in our economy,” Perry said in a statement. “As a district, we have committed to include student voice as a metric to measure school performance, and [Tuesday] it was made clear that there was some dissatisfaction with his educational experience.
“Hearing these words from one of our top-performing students has caused more concern among the community and rightfully so. But please know that as the Board Trustee representing Sam Houston, I heard Mr. Gogo’s concerns loud and clear and am committed to ensuring that other students don’t feel the same.”
Perry said she would reach out to Gogo and his family to show the district and its board care about students and hear their concerns. She also acknowledged that inequity is a “real problem and … a harsh part of the history that we don’t want to see repeating itself in our District 2 schools.”
The District 2 trustee noted that SAISD has made many improvements in recent years but must acknowledge when improvements are necessary and listen to student concerns.