A tragic start to the year, Richmond community shows resilience

Third Place, In-Depth & Investigative Reporting

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August 19 was the first day of school and many believed this year would be different. Academically and socially, the school felt more positive, especially with all the new electives offered and opportunities to make up credits.

Since the beginning of the school year, Richmond High and the community has been hit with many unfortunate events such as suicide, sexual misconduct, terminal illness, gun violence, and tragic deaths. The community at RHS manages to keep their heads up, showing support and care to cope through the dark times.

During the first week of school, Aaron Aldana, a former student, 18, committed suicide. The community was devastated and completely heartbroken.

“The tragic passing of Aaron was something really hard to deal with and I can only imagine the pain of those who really knew him,” Alexandra Cushing, Health Academy Lead, said. Cushing said this event would most likely affect the well-being of other students and their ability to focus in school. 

“I’m super close to Johnny, and his brother passing is something that is a huge devastation,” Justine Gomes, Media and Communications Academy Lead and English teacher, said. Gomes said she’s learning how to navigate her desire to be there for Johnny emotionally while still holding high expectations and helping him improve academically.

The school responded by inviting all students to talk to resource officers or therapists on campus, if needed. The Leadership class promptly created a Self Care + Mental Health Awareness week. Every day of the week, students would dress in a different color representing and bringing awareness to important issues such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. 

Rocio Reyes, Assistant Principal, sent out encouraging words to the RHS staff. Part of the email read:

Let’s not forget to humanize our students… Our students are so much more than the behaviors we see manifest in front of us. I am so grateful for all of you and the effort and love you put into your work every day. I am often inspired by conversations, resilience, and passion I come across on the daily at RHS.  Let’s not forget that RHS is a special place and that our kids are amazing individuals. 

Even with these attempts to help support students, some didn’t feel that this was enough.

“The school didn’t slow down for us,” said Jennifer Stacey Diaz Lopez, senior in the Law Academy. Lopez said she feels like the teachers and admin are not putting these traumatic events into consideration, leading many to feel hopeless and confused. Some are skipping school to take time for their own mental health, yet therefore are failing their classes.

“It’s hard to balance life and trauma,” Lopez said.

Many had a difficult time coping with Aaron’s passing and are still trying to process their grief.

To start the second week of school, an announcement was made over the loudspeaker informing students and staff that a teacher had been arrested for allegedly having an inappropriate relationship with an underage student. 

A school resource officer arrested the teacher after the 15-year-old female student reported the relationship. The officer then contacted Richmond police and school officials.  

Israel Ayala Lopez, a 26-year-old former P.E teacher, was charged with eight felony sex crimes; he was charged with four counts of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor and four counts of lewd acts upon a child, according to the San Francisco Chronicle with reference to the district attorney’s office and a copy of the criminal complaint. 

Although he is yet to be tried, reactions by students and staff were strong and varied. 

“I was really furious that someone would take advantage of their position as a teacher and do this to someone who is an innocent person at our school,” said Emilia Calderon, a math teacher.

“I think it has created a lot of distrust within the community in general,” Gomes said. She explained how some students may feel uncomfortable with their teachers now and that parents may be questioning their children’s safety. 

“He disappointed me. I looked up to him and what he did hurt me,” a student said, wanting to keep her identity anonymous in fear of retaliation from her peers. This student had been close to Ayala since her sophomore year and saw him as an older brother. “It took me time to accept what he had done.” 

While the news from the incident was unfolding, many students took to social media to express their thoughts. 

Some tried to find who the alleged victim was and falsely accused many girls. Students re-shared and posted many pictures of female students based on assumptions. The serious issue turned into a guessing game. The alleged victims were put down and insulted through media platforms, Snapchat and Instagram. 

Calderon said she’s had her own experiences with men abusing their power. She said it wrong and hurtful for people to quickly blame a girl who is trying to speak up for herself.

It became clear that RHS students needed some education around cyberbullying, victim blaming, and power dynamics amongst teachers and students.

The school responded by bringing in guest speakers from S.T.A.N.D, a non-profit organization to talk to students about sexual abuse, laws related to underage sexual relationships, and what students can do to help. The students at RHS were also given time to process the news and space in classrooms to talk about their thoughts on the subject.

Some teachers at RHS wrote and published a statement summarizing their thoughts and responsibilities around the subject. Part of the statement read:

At Richmond High School, we have been working diligently to create safe and academically enriching spaces that provide students with the best opportunities for fulfilling their own potential. This includes building trusting and appropriate relationships among students and staff… We recognize that our school’s trust with the community, and most importantly our students, has been broken. Mr. Ayala was a member of our family and the actions he is charged with abused the immense privilege we have as educators…We recognize it will take time to restore the harm that has been done… As educators of Richmond High School, we will not tolerate victim blaming or cyberbullying, and we will work to help our students understand the complex power dynamics that were abused to harm one of our students.

Ongoing conversations have continued amongst teachers and students where questions and empathy are encouraged.

A month into the school year, Pete Syharath, an RHS student, 17, passed away after losing his battle with cancer.

The school quickly responded by offering extra support to students who needed space and time to grieve. Psychologists and therapists were located in a central area to speak with students; seniors in the EPA Academy created a poster in memory of Pete.

“When these tragic things happen, we don’t know how to respond at first, but it makes us realize that we need to appreciate everyone,” said Danae Escalante, a senior in the Health Academy. She said the community feels devastated and that everyone should help others because it’s impossible to bring someone back. 

In an email to the staff, Andre Shie, a Math Instructional Coach, described a valuable lesson he learned from Pete when he was his 7th grade teacher at Helms. Part of the email read:

Pete would have his head down and I couldn’t figure out why… It wasn’t until after class one day, I asked him to stay after to talk that I learned of some of the symptoms he was experiencing. I was taken aback at how much one of my students was going through and still trying all they physically can in class. That interaction with Pete helped me realize that everyone is dealing with their struggles and sometimes we need to ask what’s wrong instead of reacting.

Shie’s sentiments echoed those of Reyes’ in her previous email, reminding staff to humanize students and learn who they are before dismissing their behaviors. 

On October 8th, almost two months into the school year, the RHS community suffered another loss. 17-year-old Ayanius Saucer, who everyone knew as Yani, a former RHS student, was shot and killed.  

Many were devastated and in complete shock when finding out there was another death within the community.

“I’ve been feeling really paranoid because I’ve been seeing a lot of young folks getting shot,” Miguel Moya, a senior in the Health Academy, said. “To see this sort of stuff coming back into our community [is scary]. I, myself, as a young person, am scared that I won’t be able to reach my goal because I could get shot up at any moment.” 

Ulises Aguilar, a student at Contra Costa College who used to attend RHS a few years ago, spoke about how he felt the deaths in the community are affecting the youth. 

“It made me pretty upset to hear about Yani’s death because some of these young people were our friends and we shared good and bad moments with them,” Aguilar said. As he spoke about how many people he’s lost, he explained that for some kids, their friends are all they have and sometimes losing them can mess them up completely. 

With so much tragedy occurring within the community, some feel an overall shift in the energy of the school. 

“I feel like everyone is just dead, like zombies,” Monserrat Sanchez, a senior in the Media and Communications Academy, said.

Other students are finding the resilience to keep pushing on, keep supporting one another, and keep learning how to cope in healthy ways. 

Even though these tragedies are very hard to deal with, the school and community are trying their best to help students get resources that can make coping easier. Students are helping by making those who speak their truth feel welcome.

This story was an honoree in the 2020 Lesher Awards competition.