Ninth-grade students at Santa Monica High School began the new school year Wednesday, September 7th, with lessons on culture and diversity.

Santa Monica High School is in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

The district renewed its focus on race relations in response to six fights that occurred at the high school April 15th between African American and Hispanic students.

Large groups of students gathered to watch the fights and refused to obey repeated orders by administrators to return to class.

Administrators instituted lockdown procedures at the high school and Santa Monica Police arrived to restore order.

As a precaution, Santa Monica Police called for police reinforcements from Beverly Hills and Culver City.

“Freshman Seminar” — a required class designed to help ninth-grade students find their way around the large campus — was revamped this year to teach students about the history of human behavior.

The class features a program called “Facing History and Ourselves.”

Students learn about the Holocaust, the American eugenics movement, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the Armenian and Rwandan genocides, slavery in the U.S. and U.S. treatment of Native American tribes.

“On the first day, we told students this class is about them, and nowhere else on campus can they get a class specifically about their identity and community,” said Michael Felix, a Santa Monica High School history teacher.

Freshman Seminar teachers utilize input from Facing History, an organization that holds workshops for teachers who are trying to help students learn to make better decisions by exposing them to historic examples of collective violence.

“We asked Facing History to bring their materials, resources and curriculum to campus to develop a meaningful course that will help youths understand the scope and sequence of human behavior, Felix said. “History is about human behavior and trying to understand why we behave in certain ways in the past and today.

“The goal is to get people to choose to participate in some way in a society.”

In addition to revamping Freshman Seminar, high school administrators have also invited students to join focus groups and advisory boards so that students feel more connected to the school.

A series of focus group meetings was held in the spring in which students gave their opinions about racial tension, school safety, school connections, the importance of relationships, respect, and the role of diversity.

Each house principal — Santa Monica High School has six houses or “mini high schools” — and head principal Ilene Straus has a student advisory board.

Monthly student advisory board meetings are held for students to offer advice to each house principal and Straus on administrative tasks at the high school.

Straus said the students helped her hire more than 40 new teachers and staff members.

“We are always looking to build better communications and connections, and we are increasing student voices in all of our decision making,” Straus said.

“The district is working with us, so we know exactly how students are doing and what this means.”

Straus said Santa Monica High School enrolls between 3,200 to 3,500 students and is considered to be one of the most diverse high schools in the U.S.

Donna Muncey, district chief academic officer, said a survey of the focus group meetings indicated students feel safe on campus and feel connected to their high school or someone at the school.

Muncey also said students told staff that they understand the importance of relationships with teachers and view respect as a key element of good relationships.

Students said they would show more respect to the high school staff if a more diverse staff were hired and if issues of diversity were discussed in the classroom curriculum.

“Their views on the causes of racial tension are multifaceted and reveal that students have complex understandings of the complex racial dynamics on campus,” Muncey said.

“One student said, ‘It has to do with competition and territory. Blacks and browns are both at the bottom and one has to be above the other.'”

Some students in the focus groups said Santa Monica High School has no racial tension, while the majority of students feel tension on campus.

Straus said the campus atmosphere has improved dramatically since April.

“We have a clear focus this year on student achievement and knowing our students well, and we had an absolutely fabulous opening, in which things went really smooth,” Straus said.

“From conflict comes great growth and relationships, and things feel different if you walk around campus now.”

Other changes at Santa Monica High School include a revamped tenth-grade curriculum and new requirements for mandatory college advising.

At district superintendent John Deasy’s request, tenth-grade students will be introduced to cultural studies in most of their classes.

Every high school senior must receive college advising and in a new advising requirement, every senior must fill out at least one application to a four-year college or university.

“All of these ideas and programs are needed, and we are on the right path to good communication,” said district board of education member Oscar de la Torre.

“We are doing a lot of work as a district for students who traditionally don’t get help, but we also need to be aware of issues outside the school community that impact the campus climate.”