Kevin Buchanan sat in his office overlooking the front lawn as the rain faded into blue sky just before noon on Friday.
Last month, the 64-year-old Los Gatos High School principal broke the news to the school community that this year will be his final at the helm of the high-achieving public institution.
“There’s a lot of different memories, and they’re all kind of flooding back right now,” he said, reflecting on steering the educational ship through rough waters. “We did a lot—and it wasn’t just me. It was a team effort.”
Buchanan came to LGHS at a time when the school was embroiled in sex abuse controversies and coming out of the darkest days of the pandemic.
Over his tenure, the school opened the wellness center program, focused on supporting the emotional development of students, and saw the high school football team contend for a state championship.
But first, he had to get the school up-and-running—since classes had gone virtual.
“If that was Job 1, then addressing school culture was Job 2,” he said. “It was almost just as important.”
In 2022, the Los Gatos-Saratoga Joint Union High School District agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle a lawsuit in which a victim claimed she was groomed and assaulted, beginning in 1999, by an assistant track coach at the high school named Chioke Robinson.
The girl’s mother found a love letter from Robinson and a discarded pregnancy test in the garbage and said Trudy McCulloch, the principal at the time, and Willie Harmatz, a coach, were informed but didn’t take action.
Current and former students held a march through town to push for change.
By the time Buchanan had arrived, the controversy sparked in-part by an NBC Bay Area investigation into the “Los Gatos High School ‘Culture of Denial,’” had begun to die down.
Buchanan says he decided to listen to the school community and tackle the uncomfortable challenges head-on.
“We wanted to square up to them and be honest with ourselves, honest with our students and honest with our staff,” he said. “There are specific actions and strategies that we’ve done to improve in that area and I think we have—I know we have.”
Training for employees and students touched on legal rights, the importance of caring relationships and Title 9 rules, which provides a path of holding sexual abusers in educational settings accountable.
“We developed an action plan for creating a positive school culture,” Buchanan said.
According to LGHS statistics, students are reporting higher levels of trust for adults on campus, with more students saying they believe the school will respond to cases of harassment and other instances of bad behavior.
A recent board presentation by the Montana Institute said 88% of Los Gatos teens say they don’t need alcohol to have fun.
Meanwhile, the high school is doing more to celebrate people of different backgrounds and is taking steps to combat the influx of fentanyl in the region.
Mancunian’s journey from Beverly Hills to Silicon Valley
When Buchanan consults the bell schedule above his desk, or taps away at his weekly principal’s message to parents, hanging on the wall to his left are a pair of Californian license plates that give away his origin (if his accent hadn’t done so already).
One reads “GO MCFC,” a message in support of his hometown Manchester City Football Club.
He left England in 1982 and moved to Los Angeles in the era of Beverly Hills Cop, Magic Johnson on the Lakers and Fernando Valenzuela playing for the Dodgers.
Buchanan got a job at the ironically pink Beverly Hills Hotel working in banquets.
“I did almost 20 years in the hotel business,” he said, noting his wife encouraged him to return to school.
They already had a child, so he continued to work while getting an English degree at UCLA.
He taught at Los Angeles High School, then returned to UCLA to get a masters in educational leadership (via a program emphasizing social justice and structural change).
His first administrative position was an assistant principal role at La Cañada High School.
It was a completely different situation, and not just because it included grades 7-12.
While his previous employer was part of the Los Angeles Unified School District (currently the second-largest district in the United States, after the New York City Department of Education), an administrator could have a greater influence over the trajectory of a school like La Cañada, which is located near NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech.
“I learned a lot,” he said, noting it was particularly informative to see how a school could respond nimbly to the needs of its community. “In that respect it’s similar to Los Gatos.”
They nurtured a robotics program, developed career technical education studies and even had crime scene investigation classes.
But he also noticed how affluent schools have a unique role to play in ensuring that students of all backgrounds have opportunities to succeed.
“If they’re not vigilant, they’re almost more prone to ignoring those important aspects of creating a welcoming school environment,” he said when asked about the lessons he’s brought with him. “They applied there; they apply here.”
After spending 11 years as principal of Oak Park High School, Buchanan said he jumped at the chance to lead LGHS, a school that administrators in SoCal would frequently measure their efforts against.
“I had always admired the schools in Northern California,” he said. “We were trying to copy the best practices.”
According to Buchanan, in order to be an effective educator, you have to continually ask yourself if all groups of students are progressing.
“It’s not just racial—it’s disability and language abilities,” he said. “There are a lot of different ways that kids can be groups.”
Taking action to promote cultural awareness
The importance of creating a welcoming environment was on full display as racist, antisemitic and homophobic slurs appeared on the campus during Halloween 2021.
“We arrived here on Monday morning after the Halloween night to a campus that had been vandalized—not just vandalized but really offensive, racist and homophobic slurs spray-painted on the walls and windows of our campus all over,” Buchanan said in a YouTube upload. “Some of it was targeting specific teachers. The campus was egged almost school-wide.”
He urged the school community to come together to fight intolerance and prejudice.
“It’s a really sinister element on our campus…Unless somebody helps us take a stand here and comes forward, I’m afraid that this will continue to be repeated.”
Buchanan says they haven’t had any similar instances since.
The Black History Month display in the hallway is just one example of how the Buchanan Administration has sought to help broaden cultural awareness at LGHS.
They developed a “Making Our School An Inclusive Community” program that is delivered during some “tutorial” periods, to help students “avoid making mistakes” around these sorts of issues.
“Each year we’re refining the curriculum,” he said.
Buchanan has found preparing the various initiatives personally beneficial, too.
For example, he says he gained a deeper appreciation for the various cultures that celebrate the Lunar New Year.
“It’s not ‘Chinese’ New Year,” he said. “I learned that here.”
Buchanan says he wants to retire “while I still have some energy left to enjoy myself.”
But he says it wasn’t an easy decision.
“I’m tinged with a little guilt, because I know I still have things to offer the school, and I still will love being around a high school environment—especially when it’s going well,” he said. “I’ll miss a lot of those things.”