LAUSD defends ethnic studies after opponents hold Town Hall 

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Los Alamitos High School students preparing for Tuesday's meeting of the LAUSD Board meeting.

By Jeannette Andruss and David N. Young 

What has been a tumultuous couple of weeks for the Los Alamitos Unified School District resulted in students themselves stepping to the forefront to express their support for a proposed ethnic studies high school elective course and social justice standards, a K-12 framework for teachers.

More than 200 people showed up at the LAUSD Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, April 27, with more than 90 of them signing up for a chance to speak for or against the measures, one week after opponents staged their own town hall.

At least twenty students spoke in favor of LAUSD’s efforts.

A supporter of LAUSD’s ethnic studies curriculum attends the April 27 Board of Education meeting. More than 200 people showed up for the meeting and 90 people signed up to speak to the Board. Photo by Jeannette Andruss

“I believe this ethnic studies class is a very important class because it tells us stories that help us belong,” said Los Al sophomore Nico Muench-Casanova.

“In order for students to learn about the countless figures and events that our current curriculum overlooks, we must include ethnic studies as an elective course at Los Alamitos High School,” said Jack Chang, a junior at LAHS.

“We should acknowledge our differences, embrace them, and be able to learn from them,” said Los Al high school senior Jackie Bond.

While the board took no action, the textbook and other coursework that the district planned to use for its ethnic studies course were introduced, including the book A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki.

The public will now have 30 days to inspect the proposed coursework and a vote is expected June 1.

On Monday, LAUSD emailed district families a statement and a five-page document entitled “Ethnic Studies & Social Justice Standards FAQ” seeking to clarify many of the competing claims circulating throughout the community about what the district was actually proposing to do.

This action came after critics of these measures took part in a Town Hall at a church in Long Beach last week that attracted more than 200 people, with roughly 30 of them identifying as LAUSD parents.

Giant screens at the April 20 meeting at Cornerstone Church displayed a slide warning “Critical Race Theory is coming to Los Alamitos Schools. Are these your values?” One presenter criticized LAUSD efforts and accused the District of trying to turn students into “social justice warriors.”

That speaker discussed LAUSD for 25 minutes and the rest of the two-and-half-hour Town Hall featured school choice supporters and conservative activists, including one who encouraged parents to be confrontational with elected officials.

An LAUSD Board Member who attended the event was not asked to speak but did have an exchange offstage with one of the presenters.

In the statement, LAUSD Superintendent Dr. Andrew Pulver slammed the “non-District sponsored” Town Hall saying it was put on by “special interest groups” that tried to connect the “controversial concept of Critical Race Theory to our course.”

Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is an intellectual and academic discipline examining the intersection of race and laws and systemic racism. CRT has become a target of conservatives, including former President Donald Trump who called it “toxic propaganda.”

The District’s new FAQ document states its efforts are not aligned with Critical Race Theory and the focus is instead on “Culturally Responsive Instruction” or CRI. LAUSD described it as “both an asset and research-based approach that makes meaningful connections between what students learn in their schools and their cultures, languages and life experiences.”

In his statement, Dr. Pulver wrote: “It is shameful and deceitful to imply that Los Al Unified is attempting to pit students of differing ethnicities and racial backgrounds against one another. Our intent is to bring students and communities with diverse backgrounds together by affirming their identities, stories, and contributions.”

The course, entitled Cultural Experiences in America, was developed by LAUSD staff, was first approved in February and is slated to be offered to juniors and seniors who had already taken another history course at LAHS in the Fall of 2021.

The Social Justice Standards — a framework for teachers to use to address topics like racism, bullying and intolerance — is up for discussion by the Board on May 11.

The framework was developed by TeachingTolerance, now known as LearningforJustice.org, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center and includes “anti-bias scenarios” tailored to different grade levels.

For example, one scenario in the K-2 grade group depicts a boy being taunted for playing with a baby doll. Another student intervenes and says, “It’s OK that he likes different things than you or the other boys.” A teacher supports the intervening student and says, “As long as no one is being hurt, you shouldn’t judge someone for what they like.”

Speaker calls for Confrontation; School Choice Ballot Measure Pitched

At the April 20 Town Hall, Harriette Reid, a retiree who lives in Long Beach and says she has a godson in LAUSD, made a 25-minute presentation arguing the District is being guided by Critical Race Theory.

“Our goal is to give you facts. It’s to let you know what we think is wrong and … where we do need to step up and push back a bit against the school district,” Reid told the crowd.

In her presentation, Reid used some slides that represented information from LAUSD, including slides screenshotted from District workshops. But she also had original slides, including a flow chart showing Critical Race Theory as the umbrella over District goals.

Two slides from Reid’s presentation showed the introduction and anchor standards and domains from the Social Justice Standards framework.  Another slide showed blurbs taken out of context from TeachingTolerance.org including one that said: “Gender identity is based on how someone feels inside.”

“Wow,” said one person in the audience. “Oh my God,” gasped another as the slide went up.

Reid was also critical of Christine Sleeter, one of the authors cited in the district’s ethnic studies presentation saying a quote attributed to Sleeter sounded more like CRT than ethnic Studies.

“This is where that theory that this is going to be a Critical Race Theory course came from. We’re not saying it’s all gonna be Critical Race Theory.”

(Sleeter’s work is not part of LAUSD’s ethnic studies course supplemental materials which was presented April 27.)

Reid warned the goal of the District’s effort was to make students become “social justice warriors.”

“If you take nothing else, understand that they plan to make your child active in whatever causes they think are important,” Reid said.

“If you listen carefully to what the opponents are saying, there is a strong misconception [about ethnic studies and social justice standards] out there,” claims Dr. Cathery Yeh, an LAUSD parent and Chapman University Professor who has been involved in LAUSD’s Human Relations Advisory Council which has guided the efforts.

In an interview this week, Yeh said social justice standards are not curriculum but a professional development tool to help teachers mitigate varying viewpoints using tolerance and inclusion.

“We all see the world differently,” said Yeh.

In a phone interview on April 23, Reid said, “I don’t think that everything in TeachingTolerance.org is bad.” But she said there’s “enough bad there.” “You have no idea where that teacher is on the scale of I agree with CRT or whether they are going to use the benign examples.”

In the District’s FAQ document, it assures parents that the optional ethnic studies class is not aligned with CRT and that care will be taken to ensure that teachers “present topics from multiple points of view” and have students examine materials from “multiple perspectives to come to their own conclusions.”

Reid said she was asked to speak out by parents who were afraid of being called racists. “I feel that I’ve been called out, called on to speak out because of my background and because of who I am,” Reid said.

Reid is Black. She said her parents lived in Alabama in the Jim Crow-era before moving to California in 1959 where Reid said she attended private schools and her family found success. Reid, who has spoken at Board meetings, said that white parents feel her “voice will carry more [weight] than theirs.”

She said she is impacted by District policies because she has “to live next door to the people you are educating.”

In the phone interview, Reid said she is concerned about Critical Race Theory and is also interested in promoting school choice and has been helping gather signatures for a school choice ballot measure.

After Reid’s presentation, the Town Hall’s next two hours featured speakers pushing for school choice and political activism.

That included Arthur Schaper, the Organization Director for Mass Resistance. Schaper, who lives in Torrance, said Mass Resistance is a “pro-family,” “in-your-face confrontational group” that “doesn’t shy away from speaking about the destructive aspects of homosexuality, transgenderism and the whole Black Lives Matter Critical Race Theory garbage.”

He spoke about his group’s success getting Downey schools to drop a sex education course by using confrontational tactics with elected officials.

“We don’t ask politely,” Schaper said, noting in Downey, activists confronted board members at church and at their homes.

“We need angry parents and relentless troublesome citizens who won’t settle for concession,” he said, encouraging parents to confront school board members outside of meetings. “You have to make these elected officials’ lives miserable.”

The evening’s final speaker, Larry Shoaf, the OC Chairman of the California School Choice movement, an organization seeking to push a statewide ballot initiative to allow residents to create “Educational Savings Accounts.”

Shoaf told the group he’s collecting signatures to get an initiative on the 2022 ballot that would allow citizens to utilize funding from Prop 98, a measure that requires 40% of California’s budget be spent on K-14 education.

If approved, said Shoaf, parents would then control the educational savings accounts, and use the stipends to send their children to the school of their choice, including charter schools and private institutions.

Despite Los Al Unified’s reputation as a top public-school system in the state, Shoaf said generally, California schools are “failing on multiple levels.”

A panel discussion that followed the speakers took written questions from the crowd. The panel included Jeff Barke, a former LAUSD Board member who lost his re-election bid in 2018. He also runs a charter school in Orange; Logan Zeppieri, an associate at the Charles Koch Institute; Marc Ang, an activist who worked to defeat Proposition 16, the affirmative action measure on California’s 2020 ballot; Dr. Jacob Daniel of the Heritage Council; Peggy Hall, founder of the Healthy American; Reid, Schaper, and Shoaf.

Town Hall ‘Hijacked’ by Activists

Some LAUSD parents who expressed concern about the course and standards and wanted more information said they helped organize the Town Hall when they felt the District was not providing enough details.

One of those parents is David Ryst. He has three kids in LAUSD schools. Ryst has spoken out about the ethnic studies course and Social Justice Standards at Board meetings and has also met with LAUSD officials to voice his concerns and ask questions.

In an interview prior to the Town Hall, he said he hoped parents would “get some information they need.”

Right after the speaker portion of the meeting, however, Ryst said, “they (organizers) had some bigger goals and agendas with school choice.” He also criticized Schaper’s tactics.

According to Ryst, other political agendas had “hijacked” what had been, in his eyes, a well-meaning attempt to provide better information to parents.

Another LAUSD parent that attended the event wrote in an email that she found it “eye-opening” and feared tax dollars were being spent on programs to fund “a curriculum that teaches kids to choose their gender and encourages them to be activists at such a young age.”

But she said she was surprised to see more than 200 people when she expected it to be “a small group of concerned parents.”

No LAUSD parents spoke at the event. The only person with a connection to LAUSD that spoke at the meeting was Barke during the panel discussion. That’s when Barke pushed back on Schaper’s efforts to encourage confronting school board members.

“Activism helps, but please do so politely and articulate your position at a school board meeting,” Barke said.

LAUSD VP Not Recognized; Calls Presentation ‘very incorrect’

LAUSD Board of Education Vice President Diana Hill attended the Town Hall but was not asked to speak. She said she let organizers know she was available to answer questions by writing it on an index card attendees were given to submit questions.

Ryst said he was not aware that Hill submitted the card but said, “It would have been awesome if she would have been able to speak.”

Hill said LAUSD parents should be checking with the District if they encounter information they find questionable.

As the Town Hall ended and people were leaving, Hill and Reid had a spontaneous and civil discussion where Hill called Reid’s presentation “inaccurate” and “very incorrect.” Two reporters witnessed the exchange.

Hill specifically disputed the slide in Reid’s presentation that showed Critical Race Theory being the umbrella guiding LAUSD’s approach.

“That’s not us,” Hill said, asserting that CRT is not the focus of their efforts.

One apparent point of contention, or confusion, is the actual Social Justice Standards framework considered by the Board members versus the group and website that created it.

Hill held up a photocopy of the framework for Reid and said: “This is what we’re voting on.”

“How would you know that they aren’t planning to use TeachingTolerance.org when the materials point you to that?” Reid said in a phone interview on Friday. “How do you know they are just going to use the ‘good part’? How do you negotiate that?”

The District’s FAQ document issued Monday states: “The Board is not adopting all materials provided by Teaching Tolerance.”

At the April 27 Board meeting, Dr. Pulver explained that just because the standards are coming from Teaching Tolerance does not mean the District will utilize the entire website. He compared it to purchasing one algebra textbook from a publisher did not mean all math books from that publisher’s website would be used.

Pulver also stressed that in the diverse district, teachers had been asking for these tools, which he said would be one of many in their toolkit, to address a variety of student-driven questions.

At the April 20 meeting, Hill said LAUSD reached out to school education officials in Anaheim and the Teaching Tolerance framework was being used there.

Supporters and Opponents of Ethnic Studies Plan Next Steps

Los Alamitos High School students have responded to the emergent ethnic studies controversy by organizing themselves into a visible show of support, claiming opponents are simply trying to create division for their own purposes.

Calling itself the “Griffin Coalition,” the group announced itself in an email this month saying, “we are pro-ethnic studies, pro-social justice standards, and pro-culturally responsive instruction.”

Hunter Dunn, a senior, is part of the Griffin Coalition along with other students, including Bond. They were among the more than twenty students that spoke at Tuesday’s meeting.

Dunn and Bond both said they faced heckling after speaking at a previous meeting.

“The Us vs. Them narrative is an incredibly reductive philosophy,” he said in an interview this week, adding that the coalition’s mission is to support the school board to “create a better community, not a more divided one.”

Dunn said the LAUSD board is simply responding to “what the students want.”

Last summer, Dunn notes, Los Al students organized three peaceful protests, including standing in solidarity for Black and brown lives, asking the district to explicitly address the hateful rhetoric and discrimination that have occurred at school.

The reckoning resulted in a marathon board meeting last June wherein students, teachers and parents who claimed to have been victimized by hate or bullying with LAUSD during the past decade, also asked the district to consider making changes to enhance diversity.

Their pleas echoed speakers from a September 2018 Board meeting that followed outcry over an LAUSD principal’s controversial Facebook post.

“They are listening to their students,” Cathery Yeh said of the Board of Education. “That’s what they should do.”

Over the past year, the district has made multiple presentations on the ethnic studies course and Social Justice Standards, and heard plenty of comments at its meetings, but had yet to issue a statement or FAQ until Monday.

Ryst said he only recently received a response from some Board members after reaching out repeatedly. He said he did learn that some of the programs are already being tested out in the schools. (Vice President Hill confirmed pilot programs were underway which she said is customary with any curriculum.)  He thinks the Board will approve the Social Justice Standards and he is exploring options for allowing his children to opt-out of it.

In an email to Board members this week Ryst wrote: “I am convinced my participation as a parent is unwanted. I have spent countless hours trying to get insight to what’s being planned for our schools and continue to be left in the dark. Sadly other groups have done a better job at trying to inform the community than our own district.”

Dunn said what was presented at the Town Hall “couldn’t have been further from the truth.” But he stops short of painting everyone against, or seeking more information, with a broad brush. “Not everyone against ethnic studies is a hateful person,” he said, but the current dialog is “not healthy for the community.”

Ryst said he’s heartened seeing people engaged and his message to fellow LAUSD parents who may think differently from him is for them to explain why they like these standards. “I haven’t seen anyone say, ‘I believe TeachingTolerance.org is the best way to do it.’ …

Please if you support it, please make sure and show what you support. Maybe I’ll have my eyes opened.”

Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of the story that appeared in the April 28 print edition of The Event-News Enterprise. It was updated to include events from the April 27 LAUSD Board of Education meeting which happened after the ENE print publication deadline.