Placentia-Yorba Linda School District Trustees narrowly voted to ban Critical Race Theory, despite officials repeatedly saying the theory isn’t being taught in schools.  

District trustees at their Tuesday board meeting voted 3-2 on a resolution banning the theory, while school districts across Orange County grapple with how history is being taught in schools, becoming part of a national debate at school boards throughout the country.

They’re the first OC school board to ban Critical Race Theory from classrooms.

Trustee Leandra Blades claimed the theory is being taught and said she doesn’t want politics in the classroom and that the focus should be on traditional curriculum.

“Keep the politics, the social justice, all of the noise out and just educate our kids.”

Trustee Leandra Blades said at the meeting

Board President Carrie Buck and Trustee Karin Freeman, the dissenting votes, called the ban censorship. 

“At its worst, this resolution positions our educational program for abridgement of free speech and the creation of censorship and bans. This change creates obstacles and impediments for students’ success,” Freeman said. “I anticipate that the curriculum will suffer the consequence of dumbing down.”

“Our goal should never be to graduate modern day Rip Van Winkles,” she continued.

The student board member also voted against the ban, although their vote ultimately carries no weight.

Buck said the resolution was politically driven.

“Curriculum development belongs in the hands of our educators…This (ban) is being done to fit an agenda and not wanted by the majority of our community, parents, teachers and most importantly, as you’ve seen tonight, our students.”

Board President Carrie Buck said at the meeting

The ban has sparked uproar from students and parents who have been pushing back on the ban. 

They’ve also expressed worries the move will have a “chilling effect” on teachers and historical lessons on issues like segregation and slavery, as well as limit all conversations on racism.

The ban has also been criticized as censorship and political pandering by many parents in the district.

For more than an hour, students and parents came out to share their thoughts on the ban, many of whom were against it.

Two middle school students in the district said they created a petition garnering over 550 signatures from their fellow students in opposition to the ban.

“Teaching race related topics is not about blaming any one group. Instead, it is trying to understand different perspectives … So we can understand how past history affects our current society. This is critically important for us as the next generation to not repeat past mistakes.”

A Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified Middle School Student said at the meeting

Most of the students who spoke during Tuesday’s public comment were against the ban.

Buck said she has an ongoing list of people in the district who oppose the ban and those who support it. She said over 700 people were against the ban – 105 of whom were students – while 160 people were for banning the theory.

“This is the first time in the 12 years I’ve been here that I’ve had 105 students send me an email or call me or send me messages saying don’t do this,” she said.

Blades said a study from the Orange County Board of Education shows people oppose requiring Critical Race Theory as a high school graduation requirement in the district. The Board of Education has also been highly critical of the theory.

“Three of my kids have been taught CRT,” she said. “In 2017 and 2018, we didn’t know what Critical Race Theory was, we just thought they were just teaching communism.”

The study Blades referenced couldn’t be found on OC Board of Education’s website. 

Blades said other families have told her the theory is being taught.

“To say that it’s not being taught – it’s just not true,” she said. “This is a workplace … if the district says that this isn’t to be taught, then that’s what you do, because that’s what your employer says.”

The theory, academics say, is a framework taught in graduate level courses, primarily in law school and not in K-12 schools, that teaches race is a social construct and examines the role racism has played in shaping society’s institutions, social structures and laws.

“It starts with the premise that the conventional description of racism as an individual consciously racist act is inadequate to explain the persistence of racial inequality.  It shifts the focus from individuals to the interaction of social norms, law, and institutions,” said UC Davis law professor Lisa Ikemoto in an email last week. 

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

The ban comes as school district officials, parents, educators and students across the country wrestle with how history should be taught in K-12 schools.

It also comes following a push for ethnic studies courses to be taught in high school.

Critical Race Theory sparked a debate that has become increasingly politicized, leading to local recall efforts and even forcing a school board meeting online over safety concerns.

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

For over a year now, parents nationwide have been showing up to school board meetings expressing concern over the theory, which they say teaches all white people are oppressors and that all students of color are victims.

They argue that the theory is Marxist, anti-American, divisive and being used to politically indoctrinate their kids. 

Parents advocating for the ban also say it will not impact the curriculum or lessons on issues like the internment of Japanese Americans shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, when the federal government forced people of Japanese descent into the camps during World War II, causing them to lose their property along the way.

“Banning critical race theory is not a ban on racial topics altogether. Instead, it is banning a harmful Marxist ideology and promoting fact based learning… It is divisive. It goes against our beloved nation’s principles.”

Parent Brooke Smith said at the meeting

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

But Ikemoto and other academics say the notion that theory casts all white people as racist is a deliberate misrepresentation of what it is and the theory is being used as a “straw target” to stifle conversations on racism.

[Read: Critical Race Theory is on the Chopping Block at Placentia-Yorba Linda School District]

The main entrance of the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District Office in Placentia on April 2, 2022. Credit: Lyssy Salvador, VOICE OF OC.

For about half a year now, a majority of Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District trustees have rallied to ban Critical Race Theory from their classrooms.

Trustees, however, were only able to settle on a definition of the theory they’ve been trying to ban at a study session two weeks ago.

At the study session, the district’s lawyer, Todd Robbins, warned that vague laws have been found to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.

[Read: Placentia-Yorba Linda School Trustees Poised to Ban Critical Race Theory Amid Uproar]

The resolution does not define clear consequences for what will happen to teachers who are accused of or caught teaching the theory.

Trustee Marilyn Anderson said at the meeting if there is a concern about a teacher using critical race theory, the parent would go to the school principal and the principal would investigate the matter.

“The reason why I think that this resolution is important is because it’s being pushed into our systems,” she said. “I don’t want to be trapping our teachers. That’s not my intention.”

Since discussion on the ban started up in October, students and parents have spoken out against banning Critical Race Theory. 

​​Groups like PEN America, a literary rights organization, and the American Historical Association have also criticized the ban.

Fram Virjee, the president of Cal State Fullerton – the closest California State University to the district, wrote a letter on behalf of faculty, staff and university students discouraging the district from banning the theory.

Anderson said the letter states that university graduates come to teach at schools in the district using critical race theory in classrooms.

“Our teachers are coming into our district learning these principles and how to incorporate them in a K-12 setting. This is not imagination,” Anderson said. “I feel it’s really important so that when teachers come to our district that they know that they can just leave that behind, that they learned that in college, but it’s not appreciated, or needed here, that we teach race differently.”

Virjee’s Jan. 7 letter decries the ban because it limits teaching diversity.

“The reasons for this stance are many, but as an attorney and defender of the First Amendment (especially in our public schools), I will begin with the most obvious: such a ban impedes academic freedom and epitomizes the sort of content-based censorship that flies in the face of our nation’s democracy,” Virjee wrote.

“Proponents of this CRT ban also aim to leverage the divisiveness of what has become a lightning rod term — Critical Race Theory — to muzzle any cross-cultural teaching and social justice discussions, including those that are already embedded in our K-12 curriculum,” he continued.

Virjee said graduates from the university could go on to teach in the district.

“We are also proud that they come to you with the education to effectively explain and include CRT as well as Ethnic Studies in their classrooms as well as promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice for all,” he said.

Read the full letter here.

Meanwhile, some parents worry the ban could impact Advanced Placement courses

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.

“Nothing that we discussed was going to remove anything from the curriculum, nothing would be done to affect or harm our AP certification,” Blades said at the meeting.

The resolution was amended at the meeting to include a paragraph that stated it would not alter content currently taught in AP courses at the request of Anderson.

“We are not banning topics. The resolution plainly states that this is about how (they’re taught), not what (is taught),” she said.

A representative from the College Board told Voice of OC that there are required topics a course must cover in order to be authorized and deemed “AP.”

“If a school inadvertently omits or intentionally removes required topics from the syllabus, they will not receive “AP” authorization for that specific course,” the representative said.

They did not specifically address a question on what the Critical Race Theory ban could mean for AP courses in the district.

Multicultural Studies Course Coming to PYLUSD

Trustees first discussed banning critical race theory last October, shortly after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill mandating ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement beginning with the graduating class of 2029-30.

At that point, school district trustees had already narrowly passed development of an elective ethnic studies course following a push from students and parents for the course.

At the time, some parents claimed the course was a guise for Critical Race Theory to seep into the curriculum.

“In the early stages of creating a new elective, a new set of unfamiliar words enter the scene – Critical Race Theory, or CRT. Rapidly this set of words has been turned into an assertion that our district has been in the past or is about to venture into teaching divisive race shaming hateful classes,” said Trustee Freeman at Tuesday’s meeting.

At the same meeting that trustees banned Critical Race Theory, district staff presented what the year long elective ethnic studies course will look like and what it will entail.

Trustees voted unanimously to display the curriculum for the elective course for a month at the district’s Professional Development Academy.

This story was updated to include CSUF President Fram Virjee’s Jan. 7 letter to the school board.

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

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