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Ethnic studies classes designed to teach students history and culture from the perspectives of people of color are bringing droves of parents, students and teachers to public school board meetings, particularly in the Los Alamitos Unified School District.

It’s an issue that’s prompted debates at school boards throughout Orange County in recent months.

The situation became so intense, it prompted the Los Alamitos School Board to hold their meeting tonight online.

Los Alamitos Police Chief Eric Nuñez said his department received a handful calls about people self-identifying as Antifa verbally harassing people and pouring “some sort of liquid” on vehicles at a recent school board meeting.

“There wasn’t an actual crime of vandalism and there was no physical harm to anyone that was reported to us,” Nuñez said. “There were some passionate people on both sides of the issue. There was certainly some people that called because they did feel threatened and they felt concerned about their own safety”

The Los Alamitos school district will be deciding tonight on approving Social Justice Standards created by the Southern Poverty Law Center which has sparked some of the debate.

The district describes the standards as guidelines for teachers and administrators to develop curriculum and make schools more equitable and safe.

Some of the people at previous meetings called out the standards and the Southern Poverty Law Center and said the center is biased to the left. Many students, parents and teachers are also showing up in support of the social justice standards and ethnic studies.

But people won’t be able to physically voice their opinions in front of the board tonight as they’ve done in the past two meetings.

Tonight’s board meeting will be held instead virtually “to protect public health and safety” following recommendations from law enforcement to do it online.

“Most of the information coming to the police department regarding this event was coming from concerned parents via the school district and forwarded to us with postings on Facebook and other social media platforms that were indicating extremists on both sides of the issue that were planning to attend the event,” Nuñez said.

“The only way we can 100% absolutely guarantee that the participants wouldn’t risk any physical harm or verbal abuse and all that stuff was if they were to conduct a meeting online.” 

The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. and can be watched live on Youtube at the link provided here. Comments must be submitted electronically here before 3 p.m. and will be read out loud.

Nuñez said while it was their suggestion to hold the meeting online, it was ultimately up to the district to decide to do so.

They have also been calling out critical race theory, which many say teaches that all white people are racist and creates a victim mentality for people of color. 

Some academics argue the theory is not about that at all, but looks at the ways in which laws and structures in the U.S. have been leveraged against people of color so they don’t have the same opportunity as others.

Meanwhile, the district has said the theory is not the foundation of their elective ethnic studies course they passed earlier this year. The district has addressed questions about the standards on their website.

Anaheim Union High School District to Require Ethnic Studies

Savanna High School in the Anaheim Union High School District on May 10, 2021. Credit: GARRETT TROUTMAN, Voice of OC

Last week, the Anaheim Union High School District’s (AUHSD) Board of Trustees unanimously voted to create such a requirement on their own, becoming the second district in the county to do so.

The Santa Ana Unified School District was the first to do so last year.

“It was important to pass it as a requirement. The electives are great and it’s the first step in opening the door into providing these opportunities for students to learn about themselves, their communities and others,” said Carolyn Torres, a teacher in the Anaheim Union High School District who sits on the Santa Ana Unified School District’s Board of Education.

“But without it being a requirement, it doesn’t get the support it needs for a lot of students to take it.”

Across California, there is a huge reckoning with how U.S. history is being taught in classrooms and what is being left out. Some are calling on schools to teach ethnic studies courses that highlight the historical plight of people of color and the contributions they have made to America.

Not everyone agrees.

Either way, an ethnic studies course could become a high school graduation requirement in California, under a proposed state Assembly bill.

If the bill becomes law, local school districts who don’t offer such courses will potentially have to spend money on training and textbooks.

Torres said there were only two schools and two teachers teaching ethnic studies at Santa Ana schools.

She added without a requirement it’s hard to make ethnic studies a priority. 

“History is not always pretty,” Torres said. “History is controversial, but you don’t shy away from it. You don’t pretend it didn’t exist. You learn about it, you examine it and you decide what things you want to do better.”

The Anaheim Union district created an ethnic studies task force in August 2020 after students advocated for a graduation requirement.

“A majority of students at AUHSD don’t have the cultural representation that they deserve,” said Anh Ha, a member of the district’s ethnic studies taskforce and student, at the May 6 board meeting. “Ethnic Studies at AUHSD will pioneer generations of critical consciousness, community engagement and educational liberation.”

The task force defines ethnic studies as interdisciplinary analysis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class and language. The course is intended to empower students to address issues impacting their communities.

Al Jabbar, assistant clerk on the board of trustees, questioned if ethnic studies will encompass Arab American studies.

“We have a number of Middle Eastern students in our district and we need to address that,” Jabbar said. 

Jaron Fried, an assistant superintendent at the district, said the course will be localized to reflect the students and the communities the district serves.

“It’s not just one group in particular, it’s going to be a variety of different ethnic and racial groups that you will see embedded in these courses,” Fried said.

The requirement will be implemented for the graduating class of 2026.

Orange County Board of Education to Hold Ethnic Studies Forums

Orange County Board of Education listens to public comments on recent educational issues involving vaccination passports and ethnic studies on May 5, 2021. Credit: GARRETT TROUTMAN, Voice of OC

County parents, students and teachers will have more opportunities to voice their opinions on ethnic studies.

The County’s Board of Education will host two forums on ethnic studies: One in July and one in August, although the dates haven’t been finalized yet. 

However, the board itself does not have control over curriculums, which are up to the school districts themselves.

“I think this is very controversial — probably one of the most controversial subjects in my 25 years. We’re teaching to fight racism with another form of discrimination,” said the Board’s president Dr. Ken Williams about ethnic studies at their meeting on May 5.

At that meeting, around ten people came out to speak against ethnic studies and critical race theory.

“We must fight back against race pandering, political indoctrination and toxic identity politics,” one mother said.

Board members will each get to pick an expert to discuss ethnic studies at these forums.

Last year, the board hosted a panel of experts who recommended that schools reopen without social distancing or requiring masks

Concerns were raised that the panelists and the public commenters at that meeting were cherry picked to speak against public health measures.

The board discussed how public comments would work at their ethnic studies forums based on the concerns of their last forum.

Tim Shaw, a board member, questioned if public comments should even be allowed at the forums.

“Do we have to have public comments at this particular kind of forum? I’m afraid we’re just going to open that box and trying to stop it to kind of get on with the forum is going to leave a lot of people feeling left out,” Shaw said.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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