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'Save Our School!': Students 'Hunger Strike' to Protest Budget Cuts

3 California high schoolers forgo food to protest devastating layoffs and the gutting of programs

- Common Dreams staff

Three California high school students, Anai Rosales (18), Veronica Mandujano (18), and Kayla Ely (17), have been on hunger strike since Wednesday in an effort to reverse a 7-0 vote by their school board to lay-off more than 50 full-time San Leandro High school personnel, including teachers, councilors, administrators, custodians and security.

Students protested school budget cuts in front of San Leandro High last week. (Photo: Jim Knowles) According to local media reports, the three young women "stopped eating solid food Wednesday morning, after informing the San Leandro Unified School District board of trustees that they would take the action to demonstrate what proposed cuts would do their school." It continues: 

The board has approved cuts of $1.4 million for the next year, and is preparing a contingency budget to cut an additional $2.5 million if voters in November do not approve tax initiatives proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The contingency budget also would lay off personnel and eliminate the district's sports and music programs, among other cuts.

Ely, who said she is drinking water, Gatorade and Ensure, said she will continue her hunger strike until "the district admits there's enough money to save our classes and teachers." She said she wants the district to use reserve funds to stave off cuts.

The three students are members of San Leandro High's Social Justice Academy, a small learning community that encourages activism, self expression and critical resistance, according to Erica Viray-Santos, a teacher and coordinator of the program, which has been involved in a project called "Reclaim our Education" to address school budgets.  

Sandra Martinez, Anai Rosales' mother, wants the world to know what’s happening with her daughter, Ely, Veronica and their classmates. She said her daughter and her friends are determined to save their school, and though scared for her well being, she was proud of her. "While we are talking, she is starving for something that she believes in and that is right. The kids are our future. Why are they trying to cut our future?"

According to Anai herself, her school is only one of thousands facing similar crippling austerity across the country, but that if more students hear about the San Leandro hunger strikers, maybe they will know, “the time to band together is now.”

Anai Rosales described the decision to hunger strike as “an escalation,” after rounds of student protests and meetings with district administrators failed to stave of the fifth year of budget austerity for San Leandro High. Anai said she has educated herself about the risks of hunger striking, but said she feels like her future and the futures of her peers are being unnecessarily put on the chopping block.San Leandro High students brought the Occupy movement to San Leandro this fall, staging a demonstration in front of the campus. (Photo: Jim Knowles)

“Just like you have to feed the body, you have to feed the mind,” said Anai. “But these cuts will starve our minds, and our minds are just as important as our bodies.”

The San Leandro Patch spoke with Kayla Ely, who said, "I am nervous, but willing to keep going until the board notices how much money they really hold."

Prior to Tuesday's board meeting and before initiating the hunger strike, Ely had written a Patch blog urging the district to dip into its reserves rather than issue layoff notices which will shut down athletic activities, enrichment programs like music, library assistance, counseling and other services. She wrote:

Class sizes are already making things difficult, and the larger they get the more students get lost in their classes. Along with teachers losing their jobs, we have lost janitors and counselors as well. What are we going to do without them?

Our school literally can't afford much more. With our other losses, such as funding in art and our library positions, what will our school offer in the end? As one student told me, "Our school is slowly becoming a soulless wasteland." Maybe he was a little too dramatic, but how long until he is completely right?

Over the past several years its been cut after cut ... we can't take it any more.

A report in the local Hayward Daily Review added:

Richard Mellor, a San Leandro resident involved in the Occupy Oakland movement, railed against bank bailouts and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he called for a grass-roots movement to fight school cuts. Mellor said there is plenty of money in society to pay for schools. "Make the banks pay," he said.

Trustee Carmen Sullivan, who is an intensive care nurse, encouraged Mandujano, Ely and Rosales to read up on the health dangers of a hunger strike, but said she understood the students' actions. "Education is a civil right," she said.

Thanks to Matthis Chiroux who contributed to this report.

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