Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District trustees want to bar any framework that teaches the U.S. is fundamentally or systematically racist – or what they’re calling Critical Race Theory (CRT) – from being used in the classroom.

This is despite district officials saying Critical Race Theory is not being taught in the K-12 system. 

It’s a move that has outraged some parents who are worried about the impacts such a ban will have on Advanced Placement courses offered in the district and say it will silence student voices and limit all conversations on racism as well as diversity, equity and inclusion.

Conversations that people like parent Miguel Lopez say are critical to have.

“Our students are going out into the world unprepared… How do we deal with each other? How do we navigate our various identities around each other? There’s a lot of practical impact based on what they’re doing and what they’re not doing,” Lopez said about the ban and trustees.

The ban is also raising questions about what role, if any, does censorship play in a democracy and what impacts do such academic bans have on a free society amid push back from the American Historical Association and PEN America, a literary and rights advocacy group.

PEN America Director of Free Expression and Education, Jonathan Friedman called the proposed ban “misguided and dangerous” in an open letter to district trustees.

“By shutting off students from even being exposed to a particular academic framework analyzing race and racism, ideological bans like the one proposed by this Resolution essentially guarantee that these students will be worse-equipped to engage in societal conversations about race and racism in their lives,” reads the letter.

Other parents in the district are in support of banning the theory from being taught which they say is divisive and teaches students all white people are racist while victimizing people of color

“Critical Race Theory promotes bigotry, antagonism and hate and undermines and exploits America’s unique and successful fusion of diversity,” said Gina Kolb, a Placentia resident, at a school board meeting in December. “I beseech all of you to ban critical race theory.”

Trustee Shawn Youngblood said at the same meeting in December  if people want to take critical race theory classes in college, they are free to do so but in K-12 schools it is a divisive tool.

“We really should be focusing more on how to read and how to do mathematics correctly,” he said. “Let’s get that stuff, that whole garbage out of here and get back into academics like we should be.”

The theory itself has already been banned in several states, according to EdWeek.

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The expected ban is taking place as school district officials, parents, educators and students across the country wrestle with how history – including slavery and Jim Crow laws – should be taught in K-12 schools.

It is a debate that has become increasingly politicized, intense and riddled with misinformation as well as lead to recall efforts and even forced a school board meeting online over safety concerns.

[Read: Ethnic Studies and Critical Race Theory: A Tumultuous Year for OC School Boards]

Locally, school board meetings have become the battleground for these intense debates with a push in recent years by some parents and students for districts to implement ethnic studies courses that focus on the history, the culture, the plight and the contributions of people of color.

It also includes the parts of history with sharp edges  – like slavery and colonization.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation mandating at least one semester-long ethnic studies course be offered at high schools starting in the 2025-26 school year and making ethnic studies a graduation requirement starting with the graduating class of 2029-30.

But other parents worry that the courses are a guise for “Critical Race Theory” which they also say is anti-American and Marxist. They contend the theory is being taught to students in the district.

School district officials have denied that the theory is being taught in K-12 schools and academics familiar with the theory contend the ferocious debate has been driven by misinformation and confusion about what the theory actually is.

Students and parents are planning to show up wearing green to speak out against the proposed resolution banning the theory at a special district school board meeting tomorrow at 4 p.m. which can be attended in person or streamed live on the district website.

[Read: Placentia-Yorba Linda School District Moves to Ban Critical Race Theory]

The finalized resolution banning Critical Race Theory is expected to be voted on at the April 5 Placentia-Yorba Linda school board meeting, according to email from district spokesperson Alyssa Griffiths.

What is Critical Race Theory?

According to the California School Boards Association, the concept of critical race theory was developed by a Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell in the mid-70s as critical legal studies.

Academics who teach the theory say it is a theoretical framework that asks how racism shapes our social structures, our institutions, our culture, and our laws and say it is taught in graduate-level college classes, primarily in law schools, not in K-12 schools.

They also say the concerns of critical race theory have been manufactured by people on the right side of the political spectrum as a sort of “bogeyman” to silence conversations on racism.

People on the right say the theory is being used to politically indoctrinate children.

[Read: Cal State Fullerton Hosts Critical Race Theory Panel Amid Heated National Debate]

Last year, the Orange County Board of Education held forums on ethnic studies and critical race theory  – where a group of panelists shared concerns about the theory and the state’s ethnic studies curriculum.

Some parents criticized the forum as one-sided and filled with misinformation and even one of the invited panelists dropped out for similar concerns

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

The board put out a “white paper” earlier this year on the forums they held last year and warned school districts that they could potentially open themselves up to litigation if they teach ethnic studies “rooted” in Critical Race Theory (CRT).

They say litigation over the theory has already popped off in California.

“Not only would future developments on these cases set institutional (legal and procedural) precedents for the implementation of CRT-infused school programs and ethnic studies, they also indicate a variety of legal and administrative vulnerabilities of school boards if CRT-based concepts are taught in K-12 settings,” reads the paper. 

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

What Exactly Are PYLUSD Trustees Trying to Ban?

In a draft resolution on the ban, the district provides its own generalized definition of Critical Race Theory.

The district’s resolution defines it as any theory or framework that teaches that the United States is fundamentally or systematically racist.

“Our race is inherently or intentionally racist and/or responsible for the stereotyping, scapegoating, and/or oppression of another race, whether consciously or unconsciously,” reads the draft resolution.

All the district trustees are white.

The draft resolution also defines Critical Race Theory as any theory or framework that teaches that a meritocracy or that a person’s beliefs, values or privileges are inherently racist or oppresses others.

They’re also calling for a ban on any theories or framework that teaches intersectionality which they define as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

At the same time the resolution states it intends to “teach a complete and accurate account of history” and states the district condemns racism and promotes equity and equality.

Read the full draft resolution here.

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Among parents’  and students’ concerns about the ban is what impacts the trustee’s resolution may have on Advanced Placement courses offered for students that can be used towards college credit.

College Board – the group that sets the required teaching topics for these courses – has warned if a school bans one of their topics taught in the Advanced Placement (AP) courses they offer, that course will no longer be considered (AP).

Brooke Harper, a parent in the district, said bans on Critical Race Theory are too broad and the definition of what the theory actually is being altered.

“The phrase Critical Race Theory has been redefined as anything to do with diversity and inclusion and as a Black parent with biracial kids – That’s terrifying,” she said in a Monday phone interview.

Harper said the trustees have already canceled programs and assemblies because of concerns over social justice.

“If they continue down this path, they’re going to overcorrect into a place where we never talk about race or address racism that happens across the district,” she said.

Harper said the broadness of the ban opens the door to an environment of McCarthyism where teachers can be accused of teaching Critical Race Theory and they’ll automatically be found guilty.

Police Killing of George Floyd Reignites Calls For Change

In the summer of 2020, Orange County residents and people across the globe hit the streets in protest against police brutality following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in 2020.

But the killing of Floyd didn’t just spark calls for reform in law enforcement.

It has reignited a debate and a nationwide reckoning on how history is being taught in the classroom and what perspectives and voices are being left out of textbooks.

The idea is that a greater understanding of the historical plight of people of color and expansion of the scope of history being taught through ethnic studies courses could help quell racism and hate and create a more equitable society.

Locally, parents, educators and students started to turn to school district trustees calling on them to implement courses that focus on the history of Black people and people of color.

Weeks after Floyd’s killing, Santa Ana Unified School District Trustees voted to implement an ethnic studies graduation requirement for students.

In Placentia and Yorba Linda, educators, parents and alumni wrote an open letter to the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District calling for the board to incorporate a more comprehensive curriculum on Black history in the U.S. that addresses slavery, the civil war, Jim Crow laws, the civil rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The board of trustees unanimously approved a resolution in July 2020 condemning racism and promising to implement an ethnic studies course for the district’s high schools following a petition and pressure from some educators, parents and alumni to reform the curriculum.

In the summer of 2021, the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District board narrowly passed development of an elective ethnic studies course as part of the district’s 2021-22 Local Control and Accountability plan.

Lopez said there has been a push for ethnic studies courses even before the killing of Floyd.

Lopez said that children are aware of what’s happening in the world around them but for them to fully contextualize issues like the killing of George Floyd or a rise in hate crimes towards Asian Americans they need to understand the history behind it.

“By eliminating these options in the classroom,” he noted. “It’s one of those things where it’s going to be impossible to do and all of this is going to continue to fall on (Black, Indigenous or People of Color) communities, individuals and families to pass on this knowledge.”

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

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