School district adopts social justice standards in unanimous vote

Parents on both sides of the issue react after marathon meeting

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Proponents and opponents of the proposed social justice standards confront each other outside the LAUSD Board meeting room. Opponents staged a rally before the LAUSD meeting to protest the pending standards and the board’s virtual venue.
By David N. Young and Jeannette Andruss

Near the end of a six-hour long virtual meeting, the Los Alamitos Unified School District Board of Education voted 5-0 to adopt a social justice framework to give teachers new tools to tackle bullying, intolerance and incidents of racism in their increasingly diverse classrooms.

Exactly when or how the supplemental materials will be presented to teachers is not yet clear.

The board’s unanimous vote came after a series of last-minute changes to the standards were made. Some were proposed by staff, others by board member Diana Hill, who asked to replace some wording to make community members “feel more comfortable and give them more reason to trust really what we’re doing and why we’re doing [it].”

Both suggested changes seem to address some of the concerns expressed by opponents including their issues with the source of the standards, learningforjustice.org, formerly tolerance.org, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center that critics claim is politically left-leaning.

The public discourse over the district’s proposed standards and an ethnic studies elective at Los Alamitos High School had become increasingly divisive over the past few weeks.

Security concerns forced last week’s meeting to be moved online after the Los Alamitos Police Department discovered “social media chatter” indicating “special interest groups” from both sides of the political spectrum were interested in converging on the meeting.

The virtual board meeting, which began at 6:30 p.m. on May 11, lasted until after 1:00 a.m. the next day with roughly 170 public comments read on the record by trustees and Supt. Dr. Andrew Pulver. According to a LAUSD summary, 73% of the comments expressed general support for the district, its ethnic studies elective and/or social justice standards. The standards consist of 20 “Anchor Standards and Domains” in four categories: Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action. (The curriculum for ethnic studies will be voted on June 1.)

Prior to the meeting, opponents held a protest outside the district headquarters on Bloomfield. A crowd of between 100 to 200 people, some waving flags and banners, showed up. Some were upset that the district was considering the standards. Others said the district wasn’t being transparent enough. A table was set up to collect signatures for a school choice ballot measure.

The rally featured many people picking up the microphone to address the crowd, some speakers were conservative activists and others were LAUSD parents and grandparents.

Matt Simmons, a parent who said he had a son and a daughter enrolled in LAUSD, said the board and administration were “making it very difficult” for opponents to be heard and accused them of changing the rules at the last minute for the crucial meeting where they voted on the new standards.

He said the board was “focused on a narrative and not the truth.” He and other parents suggested they’d take their children out of LAUSD schools if the social justice standards were approved.

The protest became tense when a few people in favor of the standards showed up. Despite shouting matches and a warning from Los Alamitos Police officers, the rally ended peacefully well before the board meeting began.

Changes made before adoption of Social Justice Standards

The May 11 meeting included a presentation from Supt. Pulver outlining examples of how some of the items in the social justice standards could be incorporated into lessons.

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Before the board discussed the standards, Deputy Supt. Ondrea Reed announced the removal of two pages of the proposed standards. Both pages referenced the “teaching tolerance” section at tolerance.org, a site of much contention during public debate.

At a previous meeting, Dr. Pulver said that the standards were to be considered a stand-alone item and the district would not be using any additional resources from the website. It has come under fire by opponents claiming it promotes facets of “critical race theory,” an academic discipline examining systemic and institutional racism. Dr. Pulver has repeatedly said the district is not using critical race theory in any of its efforts.

“We did remove the front and back pages,” of the published standards, said Reed, “as there was a bit of misinformation about some of the additional resources and content on learningforjustice.org and teaching for tolerance.”

“They [the removed resources] are not being proposed for action,” she said.  According to Reed, the social justice standard voted on by the board “only includes the anchor standards and learning outcomes for students K-12.”

In addition to this exclusion, board member Diana Hill sought to “wordsmith” what the board was about to approve, acknowledging it was coming very late in the debate.

“I think for some members of our community, some tweaks that we could make to the anchor standards might really make [community members] more comfortable and give them more reason to trust really what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Hill told the board.

Later she said: “Maybe I should have let people know this ahead of time,” said Hill, “but this is our time to discuss and we have always made adjustments” to pending curricula said Hill.

Hill again decried any suggestion that we (LAUSD) “are looking at indoctrinating our students.” “That is absurd,” she said. Nevertheless, Hill suggested word changes would reverse some potential “negative connotations.”

For instance, Hill pointed out part of a section of the standards under “Identity” that reads: “’Students will recognize traits of the dominant culture’…” “That could be a bit inflammatory,” Hill said. She suggested that instead it should state recognition of “dominant cultures,” arguing history has seen many dominant cultures.

Hill also suggested where the standards suggest students will “negotiate” identities that the standards use the word “navigate” instead.

Board President Marlys Davidson, who taught American History for 25 years in LAUSD, gave examples of “navigate” and “negotiate” used in context.

“It’s how you move through something, how you navigate through difficult … surroundings and where you place yourself along the path,” Davidson said.

“I could see that and I did not look at it that way,” Hill responded. “I think it is a great point.”

Hill said the dialog about how people interpret words differently is really important.

“That’s one of those things out there that’s difficult right now,” Hill said. “It’s that these words – the syntax of them – are being taken in very different ways. And I want to be really clear about what we are trying to put forward.”

While other board members supported the word changes, Supt. Pulver reminded them that there could be copyright issues involved because the standards are published by another organization.

Yet, he said the spirited debate would nevertheless serve as specific direction to the staff on how the board wants the standards framed for teachers.

“If we can’t actually change the words, we can certainly take a look … because these are subtle changes, we can use this guidance as how we roll out professional development for our staff, as well,” Pulver said.

Board members share their thoughts

During an hour-long discussion, each of the board members expressed their positions before the vote, touching on issues brought up by concerned parents.

Board member Chris Forehan said he’s been “listening carefully to our school parents and students” during the debate. “I am not voting for critical race theory,” he noted. He said the board had been “working with experts in the field,” and “listening carefully” in order to approve standards that can “minimize conflict and continue to reduce acts of bullying and prejudice.”

Board member Meg Cutuli said the effort was about making people feel safe on campuses after teachers asked for additional tools to teach about tolerance. “I do not see this as a huge philosophical shift to indoctrinate children. I see this as another support for the safety of our children in their classrooms and on their playing fields,” Cutuli said.

But Cutuli also stressed the board wants any standard designed to reflect Los Al Unified, which she described as a “forward-thinking community.”

“We want it to be balanced,” Cutuli said, acknowledging as with all of the professional development standards utilized within the system, this one too must be moderate. If not, she said, “we’re not going to be representing our community.” Cutuli recognized that a lot of this will rest on how the supplemental materials will be presented to staff, which she said would be done “thoughtfully in an inclusive way.”

Newer board member Scott Fayette spoke directly to parents who felt they were not being heard by explaining that, as a new trustee, he learned about rules that can lead to a misconception that board members are not listening or have already made up their minds.

“I learned that we’re not allowed to comment,” he said, “and we’re also supposed to not show any emotion, keep our faces blank, so we don’t prejudice the speaker or the audience.”

Fayette shared he had similar feelings of not being heard when he was in the audience at meetings. “But now that I’m on the other side I can tell you it’s not true, we do listen.”

A little later he explained: “We listened. We made some changes. We removed the link to the [tolerance.org] website because we don’t support everything that they said. Los Al has a strong and long history of going out and creating our own policy and procedures,” said Fayette.

At one point, Fayette admitted he didn’t really like the name of the standards.

“Social justice is a loaded political word,” Fayette said. “Politics should have nothing to do with education. As soon as you add politics it becomes muddied, because left, right, center — everybody wants what’s best for the children.”

He also brought up a situation he witnessed in a classroom as a parent volunteer. A student was being bullied for his Cuban heritage. When the student told the teacher, Fayette said the teacher “panicked and literally ran away.”

“We have to give [teachers] the tools and the resources so that they have strategies to deal with these difficult situations,” he said. He expressed confidence in LAUSD’s “incredible teachers” to implement the standards.

Board President Marlys Davidson said it was the responsibility of the Board of Education to listen to parents and the education community. “We have received numerous emails and letters expressing diverse opinions.”

“I think if people remember you came here because you thought this was a very good place for your children to grow up, nothing has changed,” she said.  “We are working as hard as we can to get to the truth and find the best programs, but the social justice standards and this ethnic studies curriculum…is the heart of what our community needs,” said Davidson.

Parents react

In interviews in the days after the vote, parents expressed a variety of responses.

“I am thankful for the board’s decision to adopt social justice standards in our classrooms. Creating a more inclusive and accepting environment will undoubtedly benefit every student at LAUSD,” LosAl@Home parent Steve Miller wrote in a text message. Miller has spoken out in support of the district’s efforts at numerous meetings. Miller said he has no concerns with how the standards will be implemented “because we trust teachers with so many other aspects of impacting our children, it’s a non-issue.”

“Our family could not be more proud that the Los Alamitos Unified School Board voted unanimously to implement the Social Justice Standards. These grade-specific standards give both teachers and students necessary tools to foster acceptance and create safe spaces in our classrooms and our community,” wrote LAUSD parent Natalie Chang.

LAHS alumna and LAUSD parent Nicole Suffel wrote: “Teaching kids to be kind and accepting and how to support one another and learning about other cultures etc. should always be the right thing to do and I really don’t understand how this is even up for debate. I know many of our teachers have always taught our children to be kind, open-minded people and this will just provide them with more ideas, support and resources to continue to do so.”

Other parents had different reactions, including Staci Muller who spoke at the protest prior to the meeting.

“I don’t agree with the board and Dr. Pulver’s decision. They did not do their due diligence as evidenced by the changes in verbiage after midnight the night of the decision. They’re okaying only a few paragraphs from tolerance.org, a site they don’t want teachers to use? … Makes zero sense,” Muller wrote in a text message.

Muller said she has met with Dr. Pulver and is attempting to offer alternative social justice standards to the district that she says are more neutral. She’s still debating whether to take her two children out of the district but is also exploring running for public office.

LAUSD parent David Ryst is focusing on how the standards will be rolled out. “Now that it’s been approved, I need some transparency about what that process is going to look like,” he said in a recent interview. Ryst has been vocal about his concerns with the proposed social justice standards saying he sees some good things in them, but also a lot of things he says could divide people. “This isn’t all good and we need to take a closer look and adjust accordingly.”

Sothy Chhe is a Weaver Elementary parent and has been closely following the district’s efforts for months. He says the district’s roll out of the ethnic studies course and social justice standards sparked confusion and consternation among parents.

For instance, the district released a FAQ sheet only weeks after parents started asking questions.

While Chhe supports the ethnic studies elective, he’s concerned with some of the language in the social justice standards and wants to know more about what will be taught in the classroom.

“Everyone’s got the best intentions. I think we all want the same thing in terms of inclusion. The real challenge is, how do we get there? I think that’s really where the debate is,” Chhe said in a phone interview.

He’s hoping the district will survey parents about the standards to both educate them and get them more included in the process. While Chhe has concerns, he said he hopes LAUSD will learn from this experience.

“It was a rough start to get there but I think there is going to be a positive impact and it will be a win-win situation,” Chhe said. “There’s a second chance here.”

School district adopts social justice standards in unanimous vote