Opponents to ethnic studies travel to Los Alamitos, again, to fight school board – Orange County Register | #students | #parents

The timing was coincidental yet ironic. On April 20, as many people around the country celebrated a court ruling they saw as a modicum of justice for George Floyd, speakers took turns denouncing an ethnic studies class recently approved by the Los Alamitos Unified School District.

Billed as a town hall, the gathering of about 200 people took place at Cornerstone Church in Long Beach. Panelists included Jeff Barke and Peggy Hall, both known in Orange County for their anti-mask  advocacy during the coronavirus crisis.

But the loudest voice in the room was that of Arthur Schaper – director of the California chapter of Mass Resistance, which battles gay and immigrant rights

Schaper urged the audience to confront school board members at their homes, businesses and even churches.

“Make their lives miserable,” the Torrance resident said to applause. “They are fair game.”

Not everybody appreciated his bombast.

“That guy did not help anyone’s cause,” said attendee David Ryst, who has three children in the district. “He basically was saying, ‘Get in their faces.’ Personally, I am against being inappropriate and interrupting people’s lives. I have my concerns about the curriculum, but I believe in civility.”


Schaper and other vocal critics – many of them residing outside the district – have been showing up at recent Los Alamitos school board meetings to protest the new ethnic studies class. Approved unanimously by trustees, the course will debut this fall as an elective for high school juniors and seniors.

Visiting opponents also decry the implementation of a social justice teaching strategy intended to help instructors at all levels approach subject material — and their students — with greater sensitivity. The school board will address that plan at its May 11 meeting.

Such curricula and classes have become increasingly in demand, especially since last summer when Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police fanned protests, and soul searching, around the world. Several other Orange County school districts — including in Anaheim, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Tustin, Placentia-Yorba Linda and Huntington Beach — are considering or already have introduced ethnic studies in their high schools. And, last June, Santa Ana Unified approved the course as a requirement for graduation, not an elective.

But Los Alamitos has taken the brunt of non-local activism, with impassioned public comments have stretched board meetings into five-hour marathons.

“I’ve asked several districts and none are having this reaction,” said Marlys Davidson, president of the Los Alamitos Board of Education. “School boards are supposed to be about local control.”

Parents and students complain that some of the people objecting to the courses are rude and disruptive, even heckling students who speak in support of the inclusive curriculum.

“It can be scary when they make comments toward children,” said Emy Chen, 13, an eighth-grader at Oak Middle School. “They boo us and aren’t respectful about (our) opinions.”

Emy’s mother, Cathery Yeh, recalled an incident at the April 13 meeting in which one of the more boisterous opponents swatted the shoulder of a teen returning to her seat after speaking. The girl can be heard on video responding, “Don’t touch me!”

“Board members expect public scrutiny,” Davidson said. “But to have adults boo students and call them names is a new low.”

Although Los Alamitos Police officers don’t typically attend school board meetings, Superintendent Andrew Pulver said the agency will keep watch for awhile.

Yeh said she recognizes Schaper and other familiar faces from three years ago, when Los Alamitos was embroiled in a different high-profile battle involving ethnicity.

In 2018, Los Alamitos’ city council took the lead among Orange County cities in condemning a state law that prevents police from turning over most undocumented immigrants to immigration authorities. People from around the state converged at council meetings in raucous revolt against the “California Values Act.”

“They yelled at people to ‘go back to your country,’” Yeh said. “It frightens me that they are in our community again.”

Flyers about Tuesday’s confab, distributed in Los Alamitos and Seal Beach neighborhoods, accuse school board members of aiming to “indoctrinate our students to hate themselves if they are white or … feel like a victim if they are people of color.”

Yeh suggested the pushback could be powerful.

“It’s hard for any small school district to be prepared for such a coordinated, funded effort.”

As have recent board meetings, the town hall attracted many from outside the district. At one point, a speaker asked Los Alamitos Unified parents to stand up – and only about 30 of the roughly 200 attendees did so.

Other than Barke, a physician who served on the school board for 12 years, none of the speakers were local. Barke, who co-founded Orange County Classical Academy, a charter school in Orange, said in an email that he doesn’t personally know Schaper.

“I have no association with his organization,” Barke said. “I completely disagree with his approach.”

The panel included Larry Shoaf, founder of Pasadena-based California School Choice, which advocates sharing public education money with private schools. Shoaf spent much of his allotted speaking time pitching an initiative he hopes to get on the 2022 ballot.

“A lot of those speakers were using the meeting for their own campaigns and agendas and stuff,” said audience member Ryst.

The Los Alamitos father said he worries that the social justice curriculum “could be a little extreme,” and that the district “hasn’t been transparent enough about what will be taught.”

“As it is, kids struggle to get good grades in math and English and science. And now we’re going to add in social justice?” he said. “Even if there’s too much anger about this, at least people are talking about it.”

Commentary and PowerPoints focused on “critical race theory” – a now controversial study of systemic racism that, the critics say, will guide curricula.

But Pulver said such assertions conflate critical race theory with what public schools are actually practicing, which he described as “culturally responsive teaching.”

“It can be confusing because they have the same initials,” he noted. “But some of that confusion has been intentionally created by outside agitators.”

Los Alamitos now refers to the teaching framework as “culturally responsive instruction,” or CRI.

As a term and an idea, critical race theory only recently has become a point of discussion outside academic circles. Last September, former President Donald Trump issued an executive order barring what he described as CRT’s “divisive, un-American propaganda” from federal employee training programs. President Joe Biden reversed the ban.

Ariela Gross, a law professor at USC, said critical race theory “is not what is happening in K-12.”

“CRT is taught in law school for students to understand the interaction of racism and government policies –  for instance, that racial segregation didn’t just happen by choice but because laws dictated where people of color could live,” Gross said.

“CRT has become a boogeyman to tarnish what is a laudable effort by public schools to expand curricula to include all ethnic groups in our diverse society,” she added.

One after another, visitors at the last board meeting decried the ethnic studies class and the proposed social justice curriculum allegedly based on CRT.

“Your job is to teach reading, writing and ‘rithmatic – not communist dogma,” one woman said.

Trustee Megan Cutuli reminded the audience that the ethnic studies class is an elective that students can skip.

“Is every student interested in fire technology or military history? No,” she said. “Should we not have a course because not everyone is interested in it?”

At the town hall, Schaper insisted that trustees need to “start feeling the heat so they see the light.”

“If they have a business, you have the right to go to that business and tell people to boycott it,” Schaper said. “They want kids to despise themselves because of their skin color. This is the civil rights fight of our time.”

Peggy Hall mused about “100 parents going against one teacher” in small claims court, with each individual complaint adding up to a hefty cost for the defendant.

But Pulver said the rhetoric will not deter the district from moving forward.

“You have to remember that we were hearing the opposite a year ago, when parents and students were asking us to be more responsive to our diverse community,” he said. “We will not shy away from doing what needs to be done.”























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