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Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials have tabled renewing a contract for bullying prevention and anti-bias training from the Anti-Defamation League to high school student leaders after a local GOP club apparently said the program pushes critical race theory.

“I think we need some more information. It has language that we had not seen before and I think it creates issues in our community and we need to do a little bit more research and decide the direction we want to go,” District Board President Karen Yelsey said at the meeting held on July 13.

At a school board meeting earlier this month, trustees decided to hold off on renewing an agreement with the ADL to continue the training, saying more research was needed for programming that had been offered in the district for the past two years.

On a 5-2 vote, most trustees agreed with Yelsey and the contract was tabled and is expected to be brought back at a future board meeting.

Now, the Anti-Defamation League is criticizing the Newport Harbor Republican Women for what they describe as a “disinformation campaign” that got district trustees thinking twice about renewing a contract with the league for up to $38,600 for the training.

“We know that there was an email that circulated as well as this flyer from the Newport Harbor Republican Women,” said Peter Levi, the Orange County Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“If you go back and watch what was said, it appears that the email, the flyer and the speakers have no understanding of actually the content and purpose of ADL’s programming.” 

School board trustee Leah Ersoylu said the program ran without a hitch for two years.

“From my vantage point, the fact that it had been going on for the past two years to what appeared to be rave reviews seems indicative that something like that should continue,” she said in a Thursday phone interview, adding that she’s not speaking on behalf of the school district.

“I think teaching anti-hate and anti-bias is clearly something that’s needed in our district and most districts,” Ersoylu said.

Newport-Mesa school board members voted to halt the contract after a little over five minutes of discussion.

The Newport Harbor Republican Women group did not respond to Voice of OC’s requests for comment.

Levi provided the Voice of OC with a flier he said was from the Republican group, which called on people to show up to the meeting and sound off against the training they feel is indoctrination. 

“The divisive, critical racist training program is hiding under the ‘sensitivity’ education umbrella and indoctrinating our children,” states the flyer provided by Levi. 

All seven people who spoke at the meeting during public comments railed against the training after officials said they were tabling the discussion.

“I oppose any funding for any anti-bias education programs, including the program called ‘A World of Difference’. Do not renew the contract with the Anti-Defamation League or secure any contract with any other organization providing training as it relates to race,” said one public commenter who identified herself as a local mother at the meeting.

“This training will create and promote racism and divisiveness in our schools. It’s not about equality and equal opportunity for all. It will be used to divide our children into groups of either perpetrators or victims.”

She added it should be up to parents to teach their children these concepts not schools.

None of the women that spoke at the board meeting identified themselves as members of the Newport Harbor Republican Women.

A school in the Newport-Mesa Unified School district on Sep. 20, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Levi said the training — provided to student leaders and school staff — is intended to prevent bigotry and bullying to create a healthy campus climate. 

He added the training starts by looking at the complexities and nuances of a person’s owb identity, an examination of bias and providing tools to challenge their bias. The training ends with an action plan on how the skills learned in the workshop can be used on campus.

According to the group, after the first year of the program 98% of OC students indicated willingness to confront bullying or hate and 91% of teachers said they were more comfortable addressing student bullying as well as incorporating anti-bias themes in instruction.

Some parents are worried the training pushes critical race theory on students.

Levi denied those claims.

“This is not a critical racist training program. We’re an anti-hate organization and we have been fighting hate for over 100 years. This is not an indoctrination program. We have no theory or political agenda,” he said.

A Similar Debate Surrounds Ethnic Studies

At school districts throughout OC, some residents have also raised similar concerns about ethnic studies, saying the classes are a guise for critical race theory.

Opponents often criticized the theory as teaching that white people are oppressors, while people of color are oppressed. 

Critics also say the theory promotes Marxist ideals and is unAmerican. Promotion of the theory itself has been banned from public schools in a couple of states.

The California School Boards Association says the theory emphasizes race as a social construct as well as acknowledges that racism is embedded American systems, institutions and laws. 

The association acknowledges that the theory developers are left leaning scholars — some of whom were neo-Marxist — but says the theory itself is not inherently Marxist.

[ Click Here to Read The Association’s FAQ sheet on Critical Race Theory ]

Levi said the training, which again he notes has nothing to do with critical race theory, hasn’t changed and they work with a school district or school to develop a training workshop that meets their needs.

“What’s changed is in the country we’ve seen a weaponization of certain education ideas like a weaponization of critical race theory, which I guess has been around for 50 years but no one seemed to talk about until very recently,” Levi said.

Ersoylu said she believes there is a nationwide disinformation campaign to label things critical race theory — whether it’s true or not — and the ADL curriculum doesn’t have that theory in it.

“Part of that disinformation campaign is that there are some activists that are now contending that everything is critical race theory, if you don’t like it, you simply label it CRT,” she said.

“It’s really tragic for education because it’s now labeling whole genres of learning anti-bias and anti hate and just getting it written off the table from the jump which is unfortunate for children.”

She said this “national disinformation campaign” is distracting from the educational equity issues they should be focusing on.

These concerns about critical race theory come amid a national debate on how U.S. history is being taught in public school and the stories that have been historically left out.

In Orange County, some school districts are facing pressure from educators, parents and students who want to see the history of people of color in America more reflected in the curriculum through ethnic studies classes.

An ethnic studies classroom in the Garden Grove Unified School District. Credit: An ethnic studies classroom in the Garden Grove Unified School District.

Some local school districts have been moving forward with implementing these classes into their curricula through elective courses or creating a graduation requirement — amid pushback.

Supporters say the ethnic studies debate and critical race theory has been plagued with misinformation and an unwillingness to engage in a good faith dialogue about the course.

[ Click Here to Read the California School Boards Association’s FAQ Sheet on Ethnic Studies ]

Earlier this week, the Orange County Board of Education held a forum on ethnic studies at their chambers in Costa Mesa where panelists and residents criticized critical race theory. 

That same day a coalition of parents, educators and students criticized the forum as being one-sided and spreading misinformation at a news conference they held in Newport Beach.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District does not currently offer ethnic studies classes, according to Ersoylu.

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

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