Los Alamitos school board approves controversial social justice teaching standards

·4 min read
LOS ALAMITOS, CA - OCTOBER 05: Students leave campus after a day of in-class learning at Los Alamitos High School, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020 in Los Alamitos. Los Alamitos Unified School District reopened in September. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Students leave campus after a day of in-person classes at Los Alamitos High School in 2020. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

During a meeting that was moved online because people feared for their safety, the Los Alamitos Unified school board on Wednesday voted unanimously to approve a set of social justice teaching standards.

The curriculum for a high school ethnic studies elective will come before the board in June.

Wednesday's vote came after an uproar in the community that saw parents, students and political activists clashing over the proposals.

Developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Learning for Justice group, the social justice standards for K-12 educators are designed to help students embrace their own identities, avoid bias and respect people from different backgrounds.

“It’s not a curriculum,” Supt. Andrew Pulver recently said of the standards. “It is supplemental material that is really another tool for teachers to be able to use to frame lessons and to frame various aspects of their instruction. It technically can be used for administrators as well.”

But some in the community expressed concern that the teaching standards and proposed ethnic studies course are thin guises for “critical race theory."

Officials in the district have repeatedly denied that claim.

Frequently attacked by former President Trump, critical race theory is an academic lens for examining how race and racism are embedded in many aspects of American life.

“We want to teach our children to be accepting, to learn about historical context, to be able to be critical thinkers, to build confidence and kindness and inclusion, and to accept diversity,” School Board Vice President Diana Hill said during the meeting, which began Tuesday evening and ran into the early hours of Wednesday morning. “To that end, I do agree that a framework is needed.”

The meeting was originally slated to take place in person but was moved online at the recommendation of the Los Alamitos Police Department after some people expressed safety concerns.

Previous meetings about the materials have drawn hundreds on both sides of the debate to attend.

"There were some social media postings from both the extreme left and the extreme right," Los Alamitos Police Chief Eric Nunez said Wednesday, "and they were concerned about their safety and the safety of their children being able to testify, or being able to speak at an open forum."

Members of the public were asked to email comments to board members, who then read them aloud during the meeting. More than 170 people submitted statements.

Even though the meeting was held virtually, protesters gathered outside district headquarters.

“I think it was a way to hide from accountability,” conservative activist Marc Ang told KCBS-TV. He was one of an estimated 100 protesters who showed up to oppose the new teaching standards, according to Nunez.

Ang said the standards are “being used as a vehicle to push a certain agenda that is very political and very special-interest driven."

Instead of teaching inclusiveness, the standards encourage divisiveness, he said.

Many people who emailed comments expressed support for the standards.

"This type of learning is needed now more than ever," one person wrote. "The outcomes and scenarios presented in the resource document are clearly meant to help make everyone feel included."

A fifth-grade student at Rossmoor Elementary School who submitted a comment said she looked forward to discussing the issues and topics with her classmates.

"It is absolutely horrible that some children, even adults, think that some people are different because they don't fit the mold they may have deemed is normal," she wrote.

Like much of Orange County, the 9,700-student school district has undergone a demographic shift in recent years.

In the 2014-15 school year, more than half of the students in the district were white, according to data from the California Department of Education.

Today, the breakdown is about 43% white, 28% Latino, 14% Asian, 3% Black and about 11% who identify as multiracial or other. Just under 20% of students come from low-income families and qualify for free or discounted lunches.

During the meeting, school board President Marlys Davidson said seven professors from the UC Irvine education department wrote a letter expressing strong support for the social justice standards and ethnic studies elective.

The professors noted that research has found a positive correlation between attendance and grades among students exposed to the materials.

Proposed course materials for the ethnic studies elective include Ronald Takaki’s “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America,” Robert F. Heizer’s “The Destruction of California Indians” and the film “Viva La Causa,” directed by Alonso Mayo and Bill Brummel, about the life of Cesar Chavez.

The board will vote on the curriculum June 1.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.