This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.

Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District will look to develop a high school elective ethnic studies course amid a debate that has parents, educators and students at odds with each other across the country.

“This is about teaching empathy and when I look at ethnic studies and what I want to see out of this course is: how do we teach empathy to our students and to our community. We all come from different places and it’s important that we recognize that and that we celebrate it,” said Trustee Carrie Buck at the district’s Tuesday meeting.

School district officials made the decisions the same time Rossmoor officials approved a forum from the Orange County Board of Education on ethnic studies next month at Rush Park Auditorium.

Rossmoor is down the road from the Los Alamitos School District headquarters, where school board members held their meeting online last month to adopt ethnic studies, after the local police department said they found threats through internet chatter.

The debate on Ethnic Studies has been heating up for the past few months across the country as parents, educators and lawmakers face a reckoning on what type of history is being taught in public schools — and what’s being left out.

A handful of districts have approved such elective courses while others have made them graduation requirements as a result of students pushing for ethnic studies.

[Read: The Push for Ethnic Studies Classes Continues Throughout Orange County School Districts]

The development of the new class in the Placentia-Yorba Linda district is part of the district’s 2021-22 Local Control and Accountability plan, which narrowly passed at their Tuesday board meeting with a 3-2 vote. 

Trustees Leandra Blades and Shawn Youngblood dissented.

Youngblood tried to strike out the portion of the plan regarding the creation of the elective course.

“The UC model which is out there is riddled full of nonsense,” he said. “This should not be a time in which we have kids that are dividing themselves based upon skin color.”

Other trustees showed no interest in striking the language and said there has been a lot of community interest in having the elective.

A screengrab from the Placentia Yorba Linda School District meeting on Jan. 21, 2021. Credit: Better Together Facebook Live Stream

Parents and students showed up to the meeting to defend and advocate for the class in a district where over two thirds of students are people of color.

They say Ethnic Studies will let students of color see themselves in their curriculum, help increase attendance and GPAs for students at risk of dropping out and quell racism.

“We have a multicultural society, and we need to be able to understand how different cultures are, how they function, how they’re unique,” said Amanda Gaskin, a parent. “These classes help students see issues from different perspectives and gives them opportunities to ask questions that many would otherwise be afraid to ask.”

Others came to speak against the elective, worried that ethnic studies is just a guise to let “Critical Race Theory” seep into the curriculum. 

Some of the critics said the theory is political indoctrination, subjects students to Marxist ideals and teaches them that all white people are racist while victimizing people of color. 

Academics dispute that and say the theory examines how laws and structures in the U.S. have been historically leveraged against people of color.

Still, national controversy over the theory has prompted at least five states to ban it from schools, according to NBC News.

“It is a cultural Marxism. There is no absolute truth: the oppressor, the oppressed, that America should be dismantled. I mean, this is the greatest country in the world. We should be teaching our children to love America,” said Public Commenter Judy DesJardin.

Books inside an ethnic studies classroom in the Garden Grove Unified School District. Credit: Courtesy of Jared Wallace

Student groups like DiversifyOurNarrative are working to bring change to the curriculum and the district. The group presented to the board Tuesday.

Abigail Lee, founder of the district’s chapter and an upcoming sophomore at Yorba Linda High School, said in a phone interview their goals are to get more books by diverse authors in the curriculum, to get the district to implement anti-racism training for teachers and the elective ethnic studies course.

Lee said while racism is not always visible, it is prominent in the district.

“We’ve received multiple testimonies of students saying not only they have experienced discrimination from their fellow students, but they’ve also experienced discrimination from substitute teachers and administration who turns a blind eye to these types of discrimination,” Lee said.

She said understanding each others experiences is key to stopping discrimination.

Blades has been vocal against ethnic studies.

“I’m not going to approve anything that has any type of critical race theory in it. I’m not going to approve anything that you know is pitting races against each other,” Blades said about the course.

She added that they should call the class cultural studies.

“Is this going to be ethnic studies as it’s being presented in the media … and what some people have adopted or is this going to be a cultural studies class? If it’s cultural studies, I’m completely fine with it. We should all learn about each other’s culture,” Blades said.

Meanwhile supporters of ethnic studies criticize traditional U.S. history courses as being Eurocentric and watered down.

“Students have been taught for generations to view the American experience through a very limited perspective and this has overall caused students to be unable to understand others’ experiences,” Lee said.

Board of Education Forum Held in Rossmoor Despite Pushback

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

The county’s Board of Education, which has no bearing on what school districts teach, plans to hold two forums on Ethnic Studies and Critical Race Theory at Rush Park Auditorium in Rossmoor on July 27 and August 24.

However, at a special meeting Tuesday, the Rossmoor Community Service District Board of Directors voted 3-2 to approve only the first meeting date due to safety concerns. 

The general manager, in collaboration with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, will present a security update including any credible threats against the forum at the next board meeting July 13.

The board will also revisit whether or not to approve the August 24 forum at a later date.

“This is a freedom of speech issue, and we are a public entity. This facility should be open to the public with very rare exception,” said Jeff Barke, the president of the service district’s board of directors.

Some residents worry that the forums would pose a safety hazard to community members.

“This meeting is going to attract very passionate people from both sides of the aisle,” one Rossmoor resident said at the meeting. “Violence is violence. The safety of this community is of paramount importance.” 

Other residents appreciate the transparency and support the discussion occuring in their backyard.

“I think it’s important to have it here in the neighborhood so people can come and have an intelligent opinion about what the children are going to be taught,” said another public speaker who identified as a Los Alamitos resident and a retired teacher. “I just think it’s very needed to have a local forum where the community members can understand as much as they can.”

Ethnic studies has been a contentious issue in Los Alamitos Unified — the local school district in the area — dominating public comments at recent school board meetings.

§

The debate became so intense it prompted Los Alamitos School District officials to hold their meeting on social justice standards online for safety reasons, based on recommendations from local police.

Captain Gary Knutson from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department guaranteed the Board of Education on Tuesday that if any credible threats were to arise before the July forum, the Sheriff’s Department would cancel the event immediately to ensure safety.

Knutson also said he is confident the sheriff’s department will be able to respond to any situation at the forum.

“Our role is to provide for the safety and security of members of the public, while also allowing for the ability for the public to have their free speech, First Amendment rights and ability to express their viewpoints in the safest manner as possible,” Knutson said at the meeting.

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

Jillie Herrold is a reporting fellow at Voice of OC and can be reached at jherrold@voiceofoc.org.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.