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Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials voted unanimously at their Tuesday meeting to renew a contract with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to provide anti-bias training for secondary school staff and select students.

The decision came after officials tabled in July the contract to continue the program they have had for two years amid recent pushback from some parents who called the training critical race theory.

“Something between 2019 and 2021 has changed just in the rhetoric of what is going on — not only in our community, we all know it’s nationally — but we know it’s happening and that is really unfortunate, because we’re reading into things that shouldn’t be issues or read into. We are doing what we feel is best for kids,”  Board President Karen Yelsey said at the Tuesday meeting.

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At a school board meeting last 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.

[Read: Newport-Mesa School District Officials Halt Anti-Bias Training in Schools]

Four principals from various high schools in the district came out to speak in favor of renewing the contract at Tuesday’s meeting.

Estancia High School Principal Michael Halt said the training that has been offered is essential, adding that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted inequities across the country and the challenges students and parents face at his school.

“We’ve been able to get a better glimpse and understanding of some of those challenges that our students face because of the increased awareness that we’ve been through these last months together but that increased awareness will be lost if it’s not coupled with increased understanding and increased training,” Halt said.

Newport Harbor High School Principal Sean Boulton said the ADL trainings have had a huge impact on students.

“We have students out in the community, out in the hallways and in the classrooms that are calling out other students about silly things they do, hurtful things they do, and about the hateful things that come across that seem like a joke but they’re really not.”

Sean Boulton, Newport Harbor High School Principal

Some parents also spoke out in favor of the trainings and agreed with the principals.

Others still equated the trainings to critical race theory.

“I have to say flowery and creative words do not take away from what this truly is and it’s basically critical race theory,” said one parent. “We need to teach math, English, history and science and that’s where our funds should go because they’ve already missed one year of education.” 

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The close to $30,000 contract the trustees approved on Tuesday was different from the initial agreement before the board in July. 

An advanced anti-bias training for staff was removed from the contract but staff will still receive foundational anti-bias training. Select students who volunteer can also receive training.

“We believe Orange County students deserve an education on how to detect, prevent, respond to hate, bullying and harassment,” said Peter Levi, the Orange County Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League. “We’ve worked together to modify the contract, which is more than satisfactory. It really meets the needs for the district.”

Trustee Ashley Anderson spoke in favor of the advanced anti-bias training but still voted to approve the amended contract. Anderson called for a survey to be conducted with staff to see interest in the advanced training.

“I was not in favor of pulling [advance training] for staff. I think that it’s important for our staff to go through it,” Anderson said. “I think that there is still great need and interest for it.”

Anti-Bias Training History at Newport-Mesa

In 2019, district officials created a human relations task force after an anti-semitic incident, which one parent refered to as a “red cup swastika party,” occurred off campus involving students. The goal of the task force was to create a respectful, empathetic and inclusive environment at schools in the district.

Along with the task force, a plan to fulfill that goal, which included anti-bias education, was formulated.

That’s when the district first started contracting with the Anti-Defamation League to provide staff and some high school students with anti-bias training starting with Corona Del Mar and Newport Harbor high schools as well as other schools. Then the pandemic started and trainings at other schools in the district were postponed. 

When the contract came before the trustees in July for renewal, a majority of board members voted to table the discussion after the Newport Harbor Republican Women and some parents apparently criticized the training, labeling it “critical race theory.”

The ADL fired back calling out the Republican group as leading a “disinformation campaign” regarding their training.

Some parents say that critical race theory teaches un-American and Marxist ideals that teach children all white people are oppressors and all people of color are victims. In some states the theory has been banned.

Others say the theory is being used as a sort of “bogeyman” to scare people away from trainings like the one being provided by the ADL and ethnic studies classes — courses designed to teach the history, the culture, the plight and the contributions of people of color in the United States. 

The California School Boards Association says the theory emphasizes race as a social construct, as well as acknowledges that racism is embedded in 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.

Concerns of Critical Race Theory in OC’s Ethnic Studies Debate

Meanwhile, some local school districts are moving forward with ethnic studies elective courses and some even voted this year to make the class a high school graduation requirement.

These districts are facing pressure from students, educators and parents who want the stories of people of color reflected in the curriculum while getting pushback from others who say ethnic studies is a guise for what they believe is critical race theory.

Last week, the Orange County Human Relations Commission in a press release endorsed ethnic studies classes being taught at K-12 schools and being required for high school students.

“The richness of American history lies within the woven fabric of all lives, cultures and histories that have contributed to its formation. Students engaging, connecting, and sharing experiences, histories, cultures – this enriches one’s lives and expands one’s worldview,” reads the release.

The commission will hold a dialogue on Aug. 24 regarding race and geography, as well as the realities of living in Orange County as part of a series of conversations on race relations, equity and justice it has been hosting since January.

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Last month, the Orange County Board of Education held a forum on ethnic studies at its chambers in Costa Mesa where panelists and attendees criticized critical race theory. 

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

[Read: OC Board of Education Hosts Forum as Heated Debate Over Ethnic Studies Continues]

The county board is expected to hold a second forum on ethnic studies and critical race theory next week on the same day as the county Human Relations Commission event.

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

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