It was “Back to School Night” last week for the La Cañada Unified School District, and parents like Vanessa Rosas hunkered down Thursday evening to take in what was going to be a virtual presentation of the annual event, this year’s program emphasizing the distance learning platform that has gripped the community in the age of the coronavirus pandemic.
She felt wary, as most parents do by now, of the way remote learning is affecting the morale and academic effectiveness of her youngsters, but when La Cañada High School 7/8 representatives dug in with a high-energy virtual presentation to help animate students and parents, she perked up.
Then her spirits crashed.
Before Rosas and her children, who are biracial, there was a presentation of a Black man wearing a striped jail suit and sitting behind bars, telling the story of how Houdini discovered he could free his mind. The message, meant to be inspirational, was instead deflating for Rosas. The man, a performing artist named “Prince EA” (aka Richard Williams) is a former rapper who has gained fame by creating provocative — and, some might argue, controversial — messages on his YouTube channel.
But Rosas didn’t know that at the time. All she could think was that, during all the years her oldest child attended LCUSD schools, he studied under only one Black teacher — one role model who looked like him. And now, during a period of ultra-heightened awareness of social injustice and inequity across the country, she, her family and all the other LCUSD families were being shown the image of a Black man in jail.
“I cannot believe that in the year 2020 this message is appropriate. I’m going to show you an image of a Black man in jail because this is the only image I can think of to inspire you? It was shocking. I was like, this is only the first week of school and you are already offending me,” said Rosas. “Do you know how hurt I was by that imagery? I don’t need to see a Black man in jail in 2020. Let’s not perpetuate that stereotype. I was disgusted.”
Other district stakeholders reached out to The Outlook Valley Sun to voice similar concerns, highlighting what one called the “tone deaf” approach to kicking off the school year, especially as it came on the heels of an Aug. 11 district governing board meeting where diversity, equity and inclusion consultant Christina Hale-Elliott presented two key documents she had been working on throughout the 2019-2020 school year. The report to the board included her research and findings in a “Strengths and Needs Assessment,” as well as “Recommendations for Sustainability,” a goal-oriented progress plan to improve diversity, equity and inclusion across the district over the next few years. Both reports are available on the LCUSD website.
When asked for comment on the LCHS 7/8 presentation, Principal Jarrett Gold told The Outlook Valley Sun the intention of the video was to show how Houdini was stuck in a jail cell and how he ultimately escaped.
“This was meant to show families and students the importance of a growth mindset and seeing how there are many solutions and paths one can take. Being trapped in a single way of thinking is not beneficial for anyone and using your mind to think of alternative ways to solve problems is beneficial,” Gold said in an email.
Asked why he introduced Prince EA as an “ex-educator,” Gold said he meant that the artist often speaks to students on the importance of race, diversity and education: “So although he may have not been a classroom teacher, I think many view him as an educator.”
Gold said he had shown the same video at a previous PTA meeting, and gotten only positive feedback. Without addressing the imagery of the video, Gold did say he also heard positive reaction about it from parents at the “Back to School Night.”
DISCUSSION SEEN AS NECESSARY
The LCHS 7/8 Back to School presentation shows just how necessary discussions surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion have become, said Lynne Graves.
Graves was one of a handful of community members who reached out to express concerns that Hale-Elliott’s presentation and resulting progress to improve diversity, equity and inclusion across the district will not be appropriately enacted or pushed forward.
“I cannot believe in this kind of charged climate that they would show this [LCHS 7/8] message. It really does show how tone-deaf the district is to all of this,” Graves said, noting that she listened to the DEI report with great interest and that it highlighted, in her opinion, the desperate need to diversify staff throughout the district. One of Hale-Elliott’s surveys showed that while the student population is slightly more than 45% white, the ranks of district teachers, administrators and staff are about 70% white.
“If the only person of color a student ever sees during 13 years of school in La Cañada is a janitor or a cafeteria worker, that’s your only interaction, it’s an extreme disservice to these kids to send them off to college and send them out into the world with this view,” Graves continued. “Even if parents are taking their kids to Europe or whatever, if they do not grow up seeing people of color in an authoritative position or learning different points of view, they are not educated kids. It behooves us to make these changes in our school district. Look at the world today — we have got to make some changes here, people.”
‘I HOPE THINGS WILL CHANGE’
Although Kim Hershman moved to La Cañada Flintridge for its quality schools nearly 16 years ago, she ended up sending her children to private schools after a series of events made her and her children, who are Black, feel unwelcome, she said. They experienced overt racism as well as micro-aggressions, she said, and when she tried to become involved in PTA or other clubs, she sensed animosity.
“I hope things will change. I love this community and living in this beautiful setting that is La Cañada, and I have a lot invested in my home. I would like to think that perhaps my children will also want to return to live here. I am all-in when it comes to making a difference in this community, I am engaged and active, and I hope no one else has to experience feeling the way I, or my children, were made to feel,” said Hershman, who began to follow the progress of Hale-Elliott throughout the year, eager to read her final findings.
“My first concern was that this presentation wasn’t scheduled as a separate meeting,” she said, referring to the fact that Hale-Elliott delivered her findings at a regular school board meeting on Aug. 11, which was also set to tackle the potential return to in-person learning amid the pandemic.
“This is a very serious issue; it’s an issue that has very serious legal repercussions as well, so frankly I was concerned they were going to sweep it under the rug by shoehorning it into a board meeting that had other very important agenda items as well,” Hershman said. “But I’m not going to say that COVID is a more important issue than DEI, because DEI has had financial repercussions, mental health and physical health repercussions for members of this community for a long time.”
Among the findings and recommendations, Hershman said, several really resonated with her, especially the “exit survey” — a questionnaire given to parents and students who are leaving the district to help school officials understand their experiences and reasons for departing, and gauge the retention rate among minorities.
“I remember a long time ago, someone brought up trying to recruit or bring more people of color into the district. … They actually suggested a kind of scholarship fund or stipend or something, which made me laugh. Money is not the problem. The district is the problem,” she said.
Other important recommendations, in Hershman’s view, include better defining expectations and rights of teachers with regard to discussing and enforcing DEI with students, which would help create transparency and build confidence among staff and faculty to speak up against bias and broach topics that may be deemed controversial. Another key change, she said, would be to develop and fill a position for a senior district administrator who would spearhead and oversee efforts to ensure district-wide DEI.
“This is critical to counter what [Hale-Elliott] found to be a pervasive culture of fear in the district, fear of complaining or reporting unacceptable behavior because of the fear of retribution. There are children on permits going to school in this district and they cannot report anything negative because they fear getting kicked out,” she said. “To have a singular district administrator, who reports to the superintendent, who supports DEI and enforces it, creates a safe place for students and parents to express their concerns and feel supported.”
Other parents expressed concerns about the district not hiring back Hale-Elliott — who had a yearlong contract — to help enact the DEI plan she presented. Some feel the board has expressed the intent to create only a subcommittee to take over the DEI and oversee its implementation.
“The choice to not re-engage Christina sends the message that they don’t care about the mental health and well-being of children of color,” said Patty Whong. “How can they spend so much money and time on the ‘Kindness’ campaign and a Wellness Center, which they have at the high school, and not focus on what these children of color are going through? Parents of color are pulling their children from the district for their mental health. … Who is that wellness center for?”
The attitude and language used toward LBGTQ+ kids in the district is known to be “negative and derogatory,” Whong said. Yet nothing is done to stop it, she continued.
“Maybe at home they are used to homophobic and racist comments — well, that’s too bad and it’s not the district’s job to change that. But the school can set up a different culture, set up a safe person to speak with about these issues, and it could create a whole different picture. It is literally the school’s job to educate these kids, and teach them what is appropriate, or not appropriate, to say,” she added.
Rosas echoed that sentiment: “Let’s give our kids a broader worldview, one that includes people of color, different races, ethnicities and religions and sexual preference and gender fluidity, and everything they are going to encounter in the real world. Part of education should be teaching that and teaching inclusivity.”
LCUSD WILL DISCUSS DEI TUESDAY
In a joint statement, LCUSD Superintendent Wendy Sinnette and board President Joe Radabaugh outlined some of the next steps to be taken, to be discussed at the board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 8. They emphasized that they would like to keep a relationship with Hale-Elliott going forward.
“Ms. Hale-Elliott has been a great partner for us, so we have a definite interest in maintaining our relationship with her. We’re actively discussing the best way to leverage her skills and expertise and how that might translate into a mutually beneficial working arrangement between her and the district,” Sinnette and Radabaugh said. “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is an important initiative for the district. So, in an effort to maintain our momentum and focus on work’s progress, the board wanted DEI on the agenda for our Sept. 8 meeting.”
At its last meeting, the board acknowledged that “next steps” would need to be taken more thoroughly on developing the way forward. According to the statement, some of the questions the board will likely discuss next Tuesday include:
• Do we need to gather additional community input regarding DEI? Do we need to take more time solidifying our philosophies, strategies, etc.?
• What should our ongoing “governance” be related to DEI (i.e., a task force)?
• Do any board policies need to be reviewed and updated? If so, determine a review process to identify which ones?
• Who should be involved in prioritizing and sequencing the recommendations?
• How do we take a “programmatic approach” to implementing this multifaceted initiative?
• Where does this initiative live within the district for both the short and long term? (Here the governing board recognizes that ultimately sustainability means that the work is systematically housed within district departments and is embedded in the goals, policies, and routines of district practices and procedures.)
“In terms of voting on each recommendation, a subset of the board will be involved formulating the DEI road map (implementation plan for priorities and sequencing). Thus the board won’t necessarily vote ‘item by item’ but instead vote on a programmatic implementation plan which identifies objectives, strategies and deliverables,” the statement said.