Ban on teaching critical race theory in Temecula, Calif., sparks heated debate

High school students hold signs reading: History is supposed to be uncomfortable.
Great Oak High School students protest their school district’s ban of critical race theory in Temecula, Calif., on Dec. 16, 2022. (Watchara Phomicinda/the Press-Enterprise via Getty Images) (MediaNews Group/The Riverside Press-Enterprise via Getty Images via Getty Images)

An emotional meeting last week of the Temecula Valley Unified School District devolved into angry disputes about the school board’s recently passed resolution to ban critical race theory (CRT).

The boiling point at Wednesday’s meeting, which was advertised as a workshop for the community, came when a white woman told a Black male speaker to “go back to his country” after he expressed his disappointment with the passage of the resolution banning CRT.

“Your continued blatant willful ignorance of the Black experience in this country is not only shameful but also detrimental to the education and growth of our children,” the man, who was identified as Deon, said before leaving the podium, echoing what the woman had remarked: “If I feel that way, why don’t I get out of the country?”

As he continued to address the woman, board president Joseph Komrosky rebuked the man, warning him that he would be asked to leave the meeting if he did not quiet down.

“My family has been here since August 16th, 1619. The first ship ... my family’s been here. We’ve been slaves for 400 years. Don’t you tell me to go somewhere,” the man continued, leading deputies to remove him from the room.

The ejection left many in the gallery incensed, and they began chanting “Take the woman!” in reference to the white woman who had initially made what they deemed to be the offensive remark. After a prolonged outcry, she too was removed from the room by deputies.

“The majority believed [the workshop] was not a good use of our time,” Edgar Díaz, president of the Temecula Valley Educators Association, told Yahoo News about the raucous meeting.

Echoing a larger nationwide debate, the Temecula Valley Unified School District resolution banning the teaching of CRT defines it as “a divisive ideology that assigns moral fault to individuals solely on the basis of an individual’s race and, therefore, is itself a racist ideology.”

“I think one of the big things in that CRT resolution talked about guilt,” Díaz continued. “It was clarified over and over again that we’re not supposed to teach people to be guilty based on their color of skin, which I don’t think we do in education.”

“I think that this is urgent,” Komrosky said in December during a school board vote to adopt the resolution to ban CRT. “CRT has no place in our schools. CRT divides and it is divisive.”

Critics of the resolution say that it fits a pattern of racism in Temecula. Christina Laster, a former Temecula resident who is currently an education adviser with the National Action Network, told Yahoo News that there’s a “community nexus” that allows bigotry to permeate through all avenues of the city.

Temecula high school students leave campus in protest. One holds a sign reading: The most violent element in society is ignorance.
Great Oak High School students leave campus on Dec. 16, 2022, in protest of the CRT ban. (Watchara Phomicinda/the Press-Enterprise via Getty Images) (MediaNews Group/The Riverside Press-Enterprise via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Laster said that part of Temecula’s history with racism traces back to the 1960s, when Tom Metzger, a former Ku Klux Klansman and the founder of the White Aryan Resistance, moved to the neighboring city of Fallbrook, Calif.

“Temecula was one of the areas that housed the White Aryan Resistance movement and its leader,” she said. “If we look at the allowance for that type of behavior, the foundation of that type of behavior, linking back to the KKK and the White Aryan Resistance, neo-Nazi skinhead movement, what happened to the children and the grandchildren of the people that were raised up under that kind of regime? Well, you see them in Temecula today.”

Temecula’s former Mayor James Stewart resigned in 2020 amid an uproar over a comment he made in response to the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis.

“I don’t believe there’s ever been a good person of color killed by a police officer,” Stewart was reported to have said, but the comment did not end his political career in the city. He was elected in 2022 to serve as mayor pro tem, and later supported the decision by the city not to observe Black, Asian, Hispanic or Pride months.

“When we bring one group up above the entire city, we basically exclude everyone else,” Stewart said, according to the Press-Enterprise. “I have a problem with that. I don’t have a problem with any of those proclamations that are inclusionary. I do have a problem at this level of government using this platform to promote another group over another.”

Laster, who also served as a local NAACP education chair, has investigated numerous claims of racism and harassment against Temecula’s school district, where just 3.6% of students are Black.

“I started to go in and meet with the school district officials and the principals and administration and said our civil rights organizations are concerned regarding the treatment and bad practices impacting Black children,” she said.

A student protests the CRT ban. She holds a sign reading: History is supposed to be uncomfortable.
A student protests the CRT ban at Great Oak High School on Dec. 16, 2022. (Watchara Phomicinda/the Press-Enterprise via Getty Images) (MediaNews Group/The Riverside Press-Enterprise via Getty Images via Getty Images)

One such incident occurred at an August 2021 football game where Temecula Valley High School students hurled racial slurs at Valley View High School cheerleaders and students.

“The [administration] started saying, ‘We know that there’s been some issues, but we tried to do everything that we can from the administrative standpoint to make it clear that we don’t tolerate racism and discrimination here,’” Laster recalled. “And I had KKK fliers that the students had given me that were distributed in classroom settings and all kinds of other places around school, pictures of ‘n*****’ paintings, ‘n*****’ on the wall spray-painted. Some of the students would go to school and it would have ‘n*****’ in their books.”

In August 2019, Solona Husband, then a Black Temecula Valley High School senior, found a Confederate flag painted on her parking space. Husband told My Valley News that she was silenced by school officials as they asked her to agree not to negatively name students, school teams or activities on social media in exchange for increased protection on campus, which included a class escort.

Laster said she has met with students to learn more about their experiences. “I quickly recognized that they were under duress, oppression and being targeted,” she said. “I began to talk to some of the Black educators, and I realized quickly that they too were under duress and being discriminated against.”

Hired in 2019, Kenneth Tenny was one of the few Black teachers hired at Chaparral High School in Temecula, and from the start he found an atmosphere that was anything but welcoming.

“I was afraid while working there,” Tenny told Yahoo News. “That whole experience was traumatizing, being harassed every day at work.”

After a year of what he described as regular harassment from a white teacher and school administrators, he was abruptly fired and has since filed a lawsuit against the Temecula Valley Unified School District, alleging sexual harassment, racial discrimination and harassment.

“I was told that I was not a good fit. No other explanation given,” Tenny said.

Yahoo News has reached out to the Temecula Valley Unified School District for comment. District spokesperson James Evans said that he was not aware of any lawsuits but is willing to “investigate.”

But Tenny is wary of any investigation by the board, who he says has an agenda. “They’re destroying African Americans’ opportunity to teach and they’re destroying lives,” he said.