By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
It’s not always pretty when the public gets a chance to voice its opinion, but it is democratic. Recently, I attended the Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD) and the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) school board meetings. It was reminiscent of Dicken’s depiction of Paris and London.
Sweetwater, which has been living a nightmare for most of the previous decade, was like being at camp sitting around a bonfire singing “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.” It wasn’t quite “Kumbaya,” but it was close.
SDUSD was the opposite. Parents, teachers and various community leaders came to engage in public debate. It was a war of words and philosophy. It was far from a kumbaya moment. People made their case in a public forum and with one dreadful exception, they did so in a respectful manner.
At SDUSD it was Sex and Islamophobia
There were two contentious issues at the SDUSD meeting; sex education and protecting Muslim students from bullying. At the July 24 school board meeting, the sex education issue was raised under the agenda item E.1, called Vision 2020 Quality Schools in Every Neighborhood or LCAP goal four.
Let me explain some school-speak. There was a 2013 change in how California divides up money to districts. The new system was named the local control funding formula (LCFF). It required money earmarked for certain categories of spending – for example, bilingual teacher training programs – to be bundled and distributed to districts under a certain set of rules for how the money is spent.
The California Department of Education describes the Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAP),
“The LCAP is an important component of the LCFF [Local Control Funding Formula]. Under the LCFF all LEAs [Local Education Agencies] are required to prepare an LCAP, which describes how they intend to meet annual goals for all pupils, with specific activities to address state and local priorities identified pursuant to EC Section 52060(d).”
In other words, these are the plans that allow districts to spend money that used to be earmarked for certain state directed categories of spending.
LCAP goal four focuses on SDUSD’s wellness initiative including health education and the sexual health curriculum. When the district staff finished their presentation for this initiative, the public comment period allowed anyone who wanted to make a comment speak for three minutes. To speak, all people were required to do is fill out a small request form and hand it to a Board staff member.
It was like living the movie “Back to the Future” where our DeLorean had just arrived in good old 1955.
It was like living the movie “Back to the Future” where our DeLorean had just arrived in good old 1955. A relatively large group of people apparently from the same Christian sect started denouncing the sex education curriculum as pornographic and against God’s Law. People in the audience were holding up Bibles and cheering on their speakers. The speakers were protesting the curriculum from Advocates for Youth that SDUSD adopted.
One of the main points many speakers made is that some research used by Advocates for Youth comes from the University of Indiana’s, Kinsey Institute. The institute’s website tells readers, “Learn more about the science-based discoveries — both past and present — that reveal the complexity of sexuality and relationships.” It also says, “Since Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s groundbreaking research in 1948, the Kinsey Institute has changed the world’s understanding of human sexuality.” Many of the opponents of Advocates for Youth indicated that the research at the Kinsey Institute is evil.
One speaker who identified himself as John Moore, a retired engineer, said we cannot trust SDUSD to select a good curriculum because they are doing such a bad job of educating students. To bolster his point, he claimed that in the latest high school exit exam (2014) there was only a 30 percent pass rate. A check of state education department statistics revealed that public schools in San Diego Unified had a more than 94 percent pass rate.
A well-coiffed handsome man in his forties said that he was Mr. Brookes here on behalf of Ernie Sanders — or at least it sounded like he said Ernie Sanders. I am pretty sure it wasn’t Bernie Sanders.
Meetings of publicly elected school boards are incubators of Americana.
Mr. Brookes said that this sex education program was against God’s Law and that it promoted deviance and rebellion. He cited Mathew 7:12 as evidence. How “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself” fits this debate is unclear. He also said that Planned Parenthood is evil and that they support this curriculum.
More speakers advocated for the sex education curriculum than spoke against it. A teacher who taught the program refuted many of the claims as being misinformed or just untrue. Other speakers made the case that this is a well-researched and widely used program. Advocates for Youth is the basis for sex education in major cities throughout America.
Although disagreeing with the opposition to the new sex education curriculum, my impression was that these were moral people who truly care about their community and family. For one who values democracy, seeing this free exchange of ideas was witnessing community-based democracy at its essence. Meetings of publicly elected school boards are incubators of Americana.
The Environment Became Disrespectful
Agenda item E.2 was called “Addressing Tolerance Through the Comprehensive School Counseling and Guidance Plan.” The summary in the Board Documents says:
“… the District will not tolerate the bullying of any student; and clarifies that our Muslim students will be treated equally with respect to bullying. A calendar of observances to be created shall include holidays of all faiths for the purpose of enhancing mutual understanding and respect …. Staff have not been assigned specifically to address the bullying of students of any single religion; rather, …. The District’s instructional materials are and will continue to be consistent with state standards which address all major world religions in the context of world history and culture. … Finally, staff is redirected from forming a formal partnership with CAIR to forming an intercultural committee which shall include representatives of from all faiths and cultures and which shall provide input to District staff on issues of cultural sensitivities and the individual needs of various subgroups within our diverse community.”
This statement modifies much of the stance the school board took on April 4 when it adopted its plan to deal with Muslim students being bullied. The board document summary covering this topic said:
“This report will focus on the district’s plan to address Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslim students and their families, as directed by the Board of Education on July 26, 2016. This plan, developed in collaboration with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and in alignment with AB 2845, is being brought forward for formal board adoption.”
That April 4, staff presentation listed several actions the district would take including:
- Review district calendars to ensure Muslim Holidays are recognized
- Provide resources and strategies to support students during the upcoming month of Ramadan
- Explore and engage in formal partnerships with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
Charles LiMandri, President and chief counsel for the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit in federal court May 22 on behalf of Citizens for Quality Education San Diego; San Diego Asian Americans for Equality Foundation; Scott Hasson; Haoyin He; Xuexun Hu; Kevin and Melissa Steel; and Jose Velazquez. The individuals all were on behalf of their minor children. The key complaint in the lawsuit is:
“Under the guise of this antibullying program, Defendants have fallen in with the aforementioned religious organization to set up a subtle, discriminatory scheme that establishes Muslim students as the privileged religious group within the school community. Consequently, students of other faiths are left on the outside looking in, vulnerable to religiously motivated bullying, while Muslim students enjoy an exclusive right to the School District’s benevolent protection.”
Charles Limandri, the Rancho Santa Fe lawyer who filed this lawsuit is a well-known activist in conservative causes. He was a vocal supporter of Proposition 8, the 2008 California initiative that banned same-sex marriage. His Defense Fund profile says of Limandri:
“Since 1983, he has handled numerous high-profile civil law and pro-bono religious liberty cases including defending the Mt. Soledad Cross, San Diego Firefighters, Priests for Life, JONAH and many other organizations in state and federal courts, as well as before the United States Supreme Court. Currently, Mr. LiMandri is defending David Daleiden, Founder of the Center for Medical Progress, who is being investigated for his Human Capital Project, which used undercover video to expose the abortion industry’s buying and selling of aborted baby body parts.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported on some of Limandri’s comments about this lawsuit.
“LiMandri said parents and his law firm have other problems with the district’s actions, including its partnership with the Council for American-Islamic Relations, which he said has a mission ‘to change American society and advance radical Islam.’”
‘“Of particular concern is the School District’s active collaboration with CAIR, which has longstanding, verified ties to radical Islam,’ LiMandri said in a statement ….”
“LiMandri said the lawsuit against the district is not asking for any monetary relief, although San Diego Unified could face a hefty legal fee if the case continues into a lengthy fight.”
The Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund which runs out of LiMandri’s law office in Rancho Santa Fe is associated with a national network of conservative legal organizations under the umbrella of The Alliance Defending Freedom. This association of more than fifty organizations includes The Heritage Foundation, National Organization for Marriage, and the Federalist Society.
The San Diego Asian Americans for Equality Foundation which put its name on the lawsuit seems to be an active political organization in San Diego working to protect the rights and further the interests of Asian Americans. The other organization that is party to the lawsuit, Citizens for Quality Education San Diego was founded by Mary Baker and is almost non-existent with no web page or Facebook page.
Mary Baker is acting president of the San Diego/Orange County Chapter of the non-profit organization, Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights and is co-founder and a member of Citizens for Quality Education—San Diego. Mary serves on two Executive Boards as President of California Federation of Republican Women—Southern Division and Rancho Bernardo Republican Women Federated.
At the school board meeting, so many people signed up to speak on this issue that the board limited everyone to one minute. Almost all speakers spoke in support of the boards original April decision and urged the board to continue with its plan to create a formal partnership with Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
A man in the audience started screaming: “obey the law you criminals”, “we don’t want sharia law”, “you’re a bunch of criminals that’s why you are being sued”
The speaker representing the Jewish Defense League said that if one community is unsafe then all communities are unsafe.
The San Diego Education Association representative called for profession development highlighting the needs to combat Islamophobia.
Mr. Contreras from the San Diego High School PTA urged the board to work with CAIR and address Islamophobia.
A former SDUSD student said that Muslim hate crimes have increased 800% since 2001 and that his little sister in middle school was being bullied – including having students try to pull off her hijab.
Board member, John Lee Evans, made the point that all students needed to be protected from bullying but from time to time in America, certain communities become targets and they need special attention.
A man in the audience started screaming: “obey the law you criminals”, “we don’t want sharia law”, “you’re a bunch of criminals that’s why you are being sued”. He continued angrily screaming over speakers especially board members for an extended period.
A very frustrated looking school board President Richard Barrera responded, “If we are getting this kind character attack, we can see what our students are dealing with.”
All the board members of SDUSD seem to be quality reasoned people. They clearly backed down on this issue and I don’t blame them. Even if they feel the lawsuit against them is without merit, they must deal with the reality of budget constraints. Limandri said he is not asking for any monetary relief, but pointed out that SDUSD could face a hefty legal bill if a lengthy fight ensues. Limandri’s allies have very deep pockets and this seems to be an issue they want to embrace.
A Trauma-Informed District
…community members who used to battle against a corrupt (SUHSD) board are giving heartfelt praise.
In Chula Vista, the new school year has started with many words of praise for the school board and Superintendent Karen Janney. For many years construction company money influenced board elections and successive superintendents had used access to that money to control board members. Through these dark times, people like Nick Marinovich of the Bond Oversite Committee spoke out about the excesses and blocked many corrupt actions by publicly airing them at board meetings.
Eventually, members of the construction industry, the superintendent of schools and four of five board member of Sweetwater Union High School (SUHSD) district pleaded guilty to felony corruption charges. A newly elected board has been in place for three years and they have brought such positive change that Marinovich and several other community members who used to battle against a corrupt board are giving heartfelt praise. At the same time, saying they will still be watching and taking positions that the board and the superintendent might not like.
The big news at the July 24 board meeting was that SUHSD starting this school year will be a 100 percent trauma-informed district. A new district discipline policy was presented. The presenter made it clear that this was not a plan in which students can do whatever they want with no consequences, but a constructive plan that includes restorative justice principles. Dr. Joe Fulcher and his team have been working on this plan for the past two years and they feel ready for full implementation in the 2017-2018 school year.
Only at public schools with elected school boards, is the public allowed meaningful participation. Democracy is messy but it engenders the wisest outcomes. Don’t allow public schools to be stolen from your community by fantasy reform like Betsy DeVos’s siren song of school choice.