De’Anthony Jones, a 17-year-old junior from Mission High School, asked those in the audience who had lost a friend to violence to raise their hand. Twenty hands shot up.

He then turned to the 11 Board of Education candidates at a youth-led forum on a recent Thursday.

“What are you going to do about the violence that is in our schools?”

Educating students about the democratic process may have been the mission of the forum, but it was the candidates who were receiving a firsthand education as the group of 50 teens let them know what was really on their minds.

Ben Martinez, 17, directing a question to Board of Education candidates.
Ben Martinez, 17, questions Board of Education candidates

Violence was at the top of the list, and candidates vying for the 4 openings on the 7 member board failed to completely satisfy the teens.

To Jones’s question, Rachel Norton, part-time editorial director for, proposed that the San Francisco Police Department and MUNI communicate to provide students with safe passage. Kimberly Wicoff, who currently works at Communities of Opportunity, insisted that providing jobs for all high school students was key.

While candidates differed on tactics, they agreed that the present board has failed to sufficiently include students in solving the problem of youth violence.

“This should not be a rite of passage,” said candidate Barbara “Bobbi” Lopez, a community organizer. “There are real solutions out there, and you guys need to know about them.”

Jones, a member of the San Francisco Youth Commission, who sponsored the event, echoed the need for student involvement in the process.

The San Francisco Youth Commission is a group of 17 young people between the ages of 12 to 23, handpicked by the mayor and the Board of Supervisors to act as a mouthpiece for their peers. The commission hosted the forum in conjunction with upcoming mock elections in November.

“It’s a way to educate students about the voting process. They’re getting skills they’ll need as adults,” said Peter Lauterborn, the commission’s education policy coordinator.

Candidate Omar Khalif, who won student support early during the session by revealing that he and his daughters had lost 15 people to violence in the past three years, faltered when a sophomore at International Studies Academy in Bayview/Hunters Point asked why the district needed 32 security cameras in her school.

“For your safety,” he replied. “I think 32 is excessive but if you’re getting beat up, you want a witness, right?”

“It’s a bit dramatic,” the student fired back.

“But I’m not there everyday, I don’t know,” Khalif acknowledged.

As they lounged on folding chairs, eating sandwiches and ribbing each other about the day, some students acknowledged they were there to satisfy class or work requirements while others had friends who worked for the Youth Commission. Nevertheless, students said they hoped the 11 candidates would address their concerns.

“We get new textbooks like every seven years,” said Racquel Craft, 17, an Abraham Lincoln High senior. “I don’t deserve a crappy book when I am trying to get an education.”

Lily Wong, a youth employment coordinator at Community Education Services, discovered that her fear of students being too shy was unfounded.

“They really stepped up to the plate,” Wong said after the event.

One Burton High student reported windows at the school having gone unwashed for four years, illustrating deteriorating facilities conditions that are prevalent throughout city schools. While some candidates, surprised at the news, suggested solutions like community-cleaning events, Rodriguez told students that after the event, she would tell them who to call to get the windows cleaned.

“But I’ve talked to those janitors,” she said, “they have a huge workload.”

Ben Martinez, a small, thin boy in a large charcoal-grey hoodie, approached the microphone confidently for the evening’s final question.

“What are you going to do about it?” he demanded after listing grievances that included a lack of communications between students and board members.

“I didn’t receive a very strong answer,” said Martinez, a 17-year-old Burton High senior who serves on the Youth Commission. “I was disappointed.”

Wong agreed to some extent, “It just was great for them to come down here. But, some of them said the wrong thing, some didn’t judge the audience quite as well.”

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