LCUSD Defends DEI Initiative, Approves Oversight

First published in the Sept. 30 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.

The La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board dedicated the majority of its five-hour meeting Tuesday to formally address the elephant in the classroom that has become critical race theory amid efforts to create curriculum including diversity, equity and inclusion.
Some stakeholders have voiced concerns and reignited accusations regarding whether critical race theory — 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 — is being taught in the classroom. A series of edited videos was leaked online in early August, allegedly showing a private book club meeting among La Cañada Elementary School teachers and administrators 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.
Since then, a number of upset parents have expressed their displeasure regarding what they claim is a lack of transparency, and in an effort to correct the situation, the Governing Board added the issue to its agenda to reiterate and elucidate the district’s curriculum and diversity, equity and inclusion initiative.
“The reason we have to have this agenda item is that there is strong evidence that we’ve seen that the district’s DEI policy — which we were promised would contain the ‘LC stamp’ — has been disregarded and openly flouted at LCE,” said Jack Schaedel, a La Cañada Flintridge resident who was also a member of the LCUSD DEI committee. “It’s appalling, frankly, that the district’s response to date and the community’s outrage have been directed not at the violations or potential violations reflected in the videos but at [the person who leaked the videos] for creating them.”
Kaitzer Puglia, governing board president, said CRT being taught by La Cañada teachers “is not necessarily happening” and “these are things we continue to look at and continue to work through.”
Superintendent Wendy Sinnette recapitulated the district’s stance on the subject that has been a controversial point since the LCUSD began working on its DEI initiative last year.
“CRT is not an adopted part of LCUSD’s standards-based instruction, nor is it explicitly identified in the K-12 state standards,” she said. “Examining issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and racism will be a part of classroom lessons and discussions at times. When programmatically and developmentally appropriate, the state standards-aligned instructional and educational materials used will emphasize the tenets of LCUSD’s guiding principles, which are student-centered, and LCUSD’s DEI commitment statement.”
The board requested that district staff and school administrators monitor curricular and instructional materials to ensure that teachers are following the state standards. They also asked that administrators work with teachers to create syllabi and course descriptions available for parents beforehand.
“Transparency was a big ‘ask’ that we’ve heard through different inputs,” said board member Joe Radabaugh.
However, Sinnette and Puglia, an educator herself, felt it was important to state that teachers should also be given some freedom in how to approach their lessons.
“They’re really responsible for that unique magic that happens in every single class,” Sinnette said. “We don’t want to lose that. I want there to be accountability, I want there to be transparency; adherence to the standards is critical, but nothing should take away from that teacher’s ability to look at a lesson and design it because they know the 22 or 33 learners in their classroom and how they will respond.”
The Governing Board later approved the DEI Oversight Committee and the bylaws for the committee. Board member Josh Epstein abstained from voting on the approval of the DEI committee members due to a verbal incident between his daughter and one of the members, who compared mask and vaccine requirements to the Jewish experience during the Holocaust at a board meeting last month. The committee member referenced the incident during the public comments portion of the meeting.
“As a Jewish American and also just a human being, I found the comparison to be deeply offensive and upsetting. It minimized one of the most horrific experiences in human history,” said Epstein. “I felt ashamed for not standing up for myself and my beliefs.”
In a lengthy statement, Epstein went on to express disappointment in the divisive, “bad behavior of late,” and asked the committee members to be involved “for the right reason, and that is to care and support our students.”
“For me, this is a committee about bringing together a diverse set of thinkers who can work productively and with kindness to prioritize our students to help make our schools the best way they can be,” Epstein added. “I hope that desire is shared across the committee and the district.”