Edited Video Reignites Debate Over School Diversity Plan

First published in the Sept. 2 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.

The La Cañada Unified School District’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiative once again took center stage at a Governing Board meeting on Monday, with stakeholders voicing their concerns — and in some cases launching accusations — regarding whether critical race theory is being taught in the classroom.

The debate was recently resurrected when an anonymous account with the username of “vlancer” posted a series of edited videos which allegedly show a private, virtual book club meeting among La Cañada Elementary School teachers and administrators. The videos seemingly depict the staff discussing “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DeAngelo, a professor who researched whiteness studies and critical discourse analysis.

Speaking at the board meeting, some parents said they felt that the video showed that staff participating in the book club aligned with CRT —an academic movement developed decades ago that examines the dynamics of how race and racism are expressed throughout American history and its institutions, especially law. The district has repeatedly stated that its DEI efforts are not rooted in CRT.

Jack Schaedel, a La Cañada Flintridge resident who was also a member of the district’s DEI committee, was one of several parents who spoke out against the ideas discussed in the video, and asked that the district be transparent and investigate the use of resources for teaching that are unapproved or contrary to its DEI policies.

“We have to keep in mind why schools exist: It’s to teach children, to serve children; not to provide jobs; not to provide playgrounds for teachers to employ radical new ideologies and try to implement them on our students,” Schaedel said. “We, the parents, are in charge. I don’t think the board is doing enough to protect our students from CRT.”

Schaedel also recommended that the LCUSD survey the community and include the issue of CRT in the classroom as an agenda item so that the Governing Board and its staff can discuss the matter and respond to the public.

Board President Kaitzer Puglia addressed the leaked videos at the beginning of Monday’s in-person meeting, saying that the CRT controversy wasn’t an agenda item because the district is focused on COVID-19 protocols, but that it could be part of a future agenda.

“We are also committed to maintaining the academic excellence which we are known for across the state,” Puglia told stakeholders. “With all this said, the behavior of some of our community is heartbreaking, discouraging and so very divisive. Yes, the Governing Board members are aware of the leaked videos set up with dramatic cuts and background narration. The videos are being posted on social media seemingly to embarrass the teachers in one of our schools. The videos do not provide the opportunity for clarification and dialogue. This is not representative of producing involvement and input that helps address difficult issues. Let us sit together and plainly address the anger and frustration but with the goal of finding solutions, not just assigning blame and volleying accusations.”

Puglia went on to say that she and Superintendent Wendy Sinnette discussed potential meetings with parents “to begin constructive and civil listening session designed to find solution” and asked the anonymous account posting the videos to cease.

In a lengthy statement, Sinnette responded to some of the claims made by the user who anonymously posted the videos.

“I mean this with all sincerity: Voices of dissent are welcome when they’re brought forward by those willing to engage in improving our schools, but what has been happening recently are playbook tactics, a smear campaign anonymously launched and designed to instill divisiveness, fear, derision and harm,” said Sinnette, who is in her 11th year as LCUSD superintendent. “These videos take a mocking tone and use veiled threats. They do not promote any of the interpersonal agency, the skills that we strive to instill in our children. There’s no listening, no reasonableness, no problem solving, no collaboration, no arguing the position without attacking the people. Quite simply, what is happening is the antithesis of what we call the ‘La Cañada difference.’”

In an effort to allay concerns, Sinnette reiterated that all public school teachers are legally required to teach the state standards and the district will “enhance its professional development, oversight and collaboration with teachers on the state standards and instructional design and delivery.”

Sinnette added that the conversation among the LCE employees involved adults, was private and was very different from “learning conversations that you’ll see in a 3rd-grade discussion of ‘Charlotte’s Web.’”

“We need to stop and understand the context,” she said.

Sinnette also responded to another assertion from the narrator of the edited videos claiming that La Cañada is losing its academic standing and that will cause property values to fall.

“Property values may decline from a social media smear campaign against our schools, but they will only increase from our schools being learning environments where all students have a sense of belonging and feel included in their academic, athletic and extracurricular pursuits,” she said.

Circling back to the concerns of parents, Sinnette stated that the district’s DEI initiative “has been wrongly co-opted into the national debate over CRT” and offered assurances that inclusivity isn’t just about race.

“It’s about children with dyslexia, children whose families espouse conservative or liberal ideologies, English language learners, students feeling anxiety or depression from the pandemic, students who are struggling with personal identity and self-expression [and] children who are being bullied on the playground or via social media,” Sinnette said. “Our kids are dealing with the most complicated world that has ever existed and it is our duty as schools and as parents to prepare them to succeed in it. … It would be a disservice if we did not give them the skills of empathy, compassion and discernment to be the inclusive, equitable leaders in that world as our next generation of adults.”

While a number of community members were upset over the content in the leaked videos and fearful that the teachers might inject their biases into the classroom, the district also received words of encouragement and support from students and parents.

Jessica Mazin, a junior at La Cañada High School, and her mother, Melissa, who has lived in LCF for 19 years and volunteered at LCUSD schools, backed the district’s DEI efforts.

“I firmly believe that DEI is a necessity for the well-being of La Cañada students,” Mazin told the board. “I have seen and heard absolutely disgusting, racist, homophobic and generally prejudiced things on campus throughout my years in elementary and high school. As a student, I can tell you with certainty that we know what is happening in the world, good and bad, and we hear what is being said on campus. A DEI initiative will not brainwash us, and it is not indoctrination. DEI will teach empathy, respect, kindness and equality. These are the most important traits of a being human. … It all boils down to respect.”

Sinnette closed her statement speaking to “vlancer” and all parents worried about CRT.

“If ‘vlancer’ is a member of our community, then it is my charge as superintendent to listen and to do better,” she said. “We can always improve, and if there are concerns out there, then they need to be heard. I will be asking parents, hopefully many of you, to work alongside me, to set up coffee [gatherings] where I along with board members will host small group meetings. Together, I am confident we will solve the problems, redirect this crisis, learn from one another and become stronger for it.”