Ousted California director escorted off campus after speech

STOCKTON, Calif .– ousted California director used 2021 graduation stage as a platform to deliver a controversial speech that ended with her escorting off campus.

In a Thursday morning start, Ben Nakamura, former principal of Stagg High School in Stockton, Calif., Focused more on his personal grievances with the school district than on the students he was supposed to send out into the world, district officials said.

When Nakamura finished his speech, he left the stage and was greeted by two men. The men had a conversation and then took Nakamura off the field.

Melinda Meza, communications and media relations representative for the Stockton Unified School District, said the district had received complaints from parents because Nakamura gave a long speech and started talking about her own personal grievances.

Meza said Nakamura was kicked from the campus for his safety and that of the general public.

In his speech, Nakamura said he would not return to Stagg because administrators of the Stockton Unified School District voted to remove him from his post as principal of the school.

Nakamura told students he was ousted by a 4-3 vote by the board, despite calls from the community, staff and students to keep the principal.

No reason was given for his dismissal.

After:Stockton Unified to send layoff notices to 104 employees, including principal at Stagg High

“I was kicked out for a reason that I really love you and this community,” Nakamura said. “I have come here to serve you, to love you, to be in the mix and the grind with you.”

He also encouraged the students to study and do their best. He shared experiences from his personal upbringing, including his mother’s death from a heroin overdose, and mentioned how much he loved his job at Stagg.

He touched on race, neighborhood violence, the struggle for higher education and working to set the bar for future graduating classes.

Brian Biedermann, director of education services, confirmed that Nakamura’s keys had been confiscated and he was not allowed to return to graduation ceremonies.

Nakamura was scheduled to speak again at noon and 3 p.m. Thursday during the opening ceremonies.

To ensure social distancing, Stagg High School has divided its class into three groups, each with their own ceremony.

(3/9/21) Stagg High PE teaser and tennis coach Shannon Markley holds up a sign in support of Principal Ben Nakamura during a protest at SUSD headquarters in downtown Stockton.  Markley was with a group from Stagg High School protesting the possible dismissal of Nakamura, who was on a list of 104 staff cuts being considered by the school board.  CLIFFORD OTO / THE STOCKTON RECORD

Earlier this school year, SUSD announced a series of layoffs across the district. Although the list does not name the employees, the community has learned that Nakamura is among them.

In previous SUSD meetings, members of the Stagg community have gathered outside district offices to protest Nakamura’s dismissal, showing their support for their director.

After:Stockton Unified to send layoff notices to 104 employees, including principal at Stagg High

Stagg High teachers and sisters Ana Orzonio, left, and Sandra Orzornio hold placards in support of Stagg High School Principal Ben Nakamura during a protest at Stockton Unified headquarters in Stockton town center on March 9.  Nakamura, who was on a list of 104 staff cuts being considered by the school board.

“There were strict guidelines on COVID-19, so no director was allowed to give a speech,” Meza said. Other schools made keynote presentations during the ceremonies, but Nakamura’s remarks “did not follow COVID-19 guidelines,” as established by Biedermann for SUSD according to state health protocols, said Meza.

According to California Department of Health Graduation Guidelines, graduation speakers may remove their masks as long as they are at least six feet from other participants and should keep their comments brief when they are not masked.

Additionally, recommendations for virtually sharing speeches are listed for “launch ceremonies and celebrations that involve more people than required capacity limits”, at physical meetings.

Nakamura said he was not fully aware of what he was allowed to do because so many policies and procedures change “almost daily”.

“I didn’t do this knowing I was violating a policy,” he said.

Nakamura said that if he hadn’t spoken, he wouldn’t have had a chance to say goodbye to the students.

“I wanted to tell the children why I left, so that they know that I have not left them, I have not turned my back on them,” he said.

To pursue Laura Diaz and Cassie Dickman on Twitter: @laurasdiaz_ and @byCassieDickman

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