Once he finishes his one-year term as Santa Ynez Valley Union High School principal, Michael Niehoff plans to resign, according to a statement from Niehoff that was read out loud during the April 18 school board meeting.
“My goal was to be an instructional leader first and foremost. I worked hard to model and live that both for teachers and students. I always tried to make learning the forefront,” Niehoff said in the statement. “Unfortunately, there are some dynamics outside of the students and teachers that make it almost impossible to focus on teaching and learning.”
Niehoff’s decision follows recent adult uproar over the decision to allow the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) to temporarily paint school crosswalks with a rainbow pattern during No Place for Hate week—an anti-bullying week meant to promote inclusion through the school’s various clubs like the GSA.
He told the Sun in a previous email that he recognized the importance of creating a welcoming environment and supportive place for students, but recent events surrounding a similar rainbow crosswalk proposal at the Solvang City Council pulled the high school into “an issue that has divided the community.” The school repainted the crosswalks back to white on March 28—one day before the school’s open house—and caused many student organizations to pull out of No Place for Hate Week in solidarity with the school’s GSA.
The school’s program coordinator for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Adriana Reyes, helped facilitate many of the anti-bullying events at school, according to a statement from the GSA. She was asked to remain off campus following the turmoil, causing students to hold a walkout on April 12 in an effort to bring Reyes back.
“Community members are claiming this was her way of ‘spreading her gay agenda,’ completely disregarding the fact that No Place for Hate is entirely student led,” the GSA stated. “[She] created a safe space on campus for everyone to enjoy and so much more. Depriving students of Adriana [Reyes] is a complete disservice.”
Reyes could not be reached for comment before the Sun’s deadline.
During the April 18 board meeting, board member José Juan Ibarra said that the district brought Niehoff in to combat some of the political challenges and create a better learning environment for students.
“This is my third year on the board and it hasn’t been easy; our community has had a lot of challenges. There’s been a lot of tension in our schools, and our students and faculty and staff are yearning for change. Students were calling for a better lived experience on campus,” Ibarra said.
Students are now having much more meaningful conversations than he had during high school, Ibarra said, and students are ready to take on complex issues, Ibarra said.
“To me that’s powerful, that’s educational. That’s getting our students ready for the complexities of the future in the way they need to engage with so many different minds and so many different experiences,” he said
Oftentimes it’s the adults—not the students—who have issues, Ibarra said, and he asked for the community to leave the “political grievances” outside the education system, to allow students to be students, and to let faculty and staff do their jobs so students can be prepared for life after school.
“It’s really important that we don’t lose sight of the positive work that we as a community and a district have been able to move the needle toward students being able to express more of who they are and show their identities and celebrate their culture,” he said.