LCUSD Diversity Ideas Prompt Dissent, Calls for Caution

More than a month after a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant presented her extensive findings to the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board, and a week after the LCUSD entrusted Superintendent Wendy Sinnette with overseeing progress on DEI, parents and community members have galvanized over the matter — some in opposition.
Two LCUSD Governing Board members, President Joe Radabaugh and Kaitzer Puglia, have been tabbed to lead a committee that will help frame DEI initiatives, which ultimately will fall to the entire board to approve or not.
In a combined statement last week, Sinnette and Radabaugh emphasized there will be more involved discussion on the topic of any DEI objectives and priorities, saying:
“We listen carefully to all voices in the community and strive for the best possible outcomes. One of the consistent things we heard related to DEI is that we seek more in-depth community input on the objectives and priorities before we finalize and the board approves. We agree with that feedback and feel a DEI committee comprised of a cross-section of the community is a critical means to that end.”
As the board considers when, how and if it will take a programmatic approach to creating DEI initiatives, LCUSD stakeholders have continued the discussion surrounding DEI on social media, and have reached out to the Outlook Valley Sun to voice their opinions — in many cases, endorsing the findings of the consultant’s report.
However, during separate interviews and a roundtable discussion, a group of local fathers registered unease regarding DEI and any form of its implementation.
Lenny Tavera, a widower and father of five children — all of whom have received at least part of their schooling in the district — expressed the belief that DEI reflects a political agenda that is not commonly shared by other parents in the district. He also said he does not support social issues being taught in a school setting.
“I’ve seen a lot of demands lately about DEI, it’s the biggest issue of the day in schools, work, sporting leagues — it goes all the way down. It’s an issue you can’t get away from,” he said. “I feel like everybody suddenly wants to do something about racism. Well, my concern is that we’re going to take the mother and the father out of the equation and make the school responsible for things that should be taught in the home.
“Nobody is in favor of racism. Nobody is in favor of injustice or not holding bad police officers accountable. But who says teaching anything at the district level will help that?”
Tavera was born and bred in East Los Angeles and considers himself a proud Chicano. He saw a lot of racism growing up, he said, was even prejudiced himself and was taught to distrust white people and other people of color before going to college: “I’m not proud of that, but I recognize it. Once I got over my own prejudice, my world got a lot bigger.”
Raising five children on his own after his wife died, Tavera said, he — along with his family — leaned heavily on LCUSD teachers, especially for stability. He said he fears that forcing DEI topics into the curriculum or discussion puts those teachers in a burdensome position. As a conservative, he might not agree with some of those “social agenda” issues, he said.
“There’s going to be a political bent to whatever is being taught, depending on who writes it and who teaches it. So are we going to teach something in schools that is contrary to what is being taught in the home?” he asked. “That’s a lot of pressure to put on those teachers and the district. Does it cure racism? I don’t know. But you know what will happen. … A kid is going to show up with three lawyers, and that’s the weird [La Cañada] truth.
“I want teachers to teach my children math, English, science, writing, critical thinking — and they do. They do it very well. But social issues belong in the home. Parents should get their house in order and teach their kids right from wrong.”

REPORT CONSTRUED AS POLITICAL

Tavera isn’t the only one who fears the discussion around DEI has a “liberal bent.”
Jack Schaedel, who moved to LCF in 2002 and has raised three children in LCUSD schools, said he became aware of community concerns regarding taunting and profanity that were reportedly used at a high school basketball game. Following that flare-up, he said, Sinnette and the district took a “proactive approach and reiterated the commitment to inclusion, empathy and personal dignity.”
“I really think that was a fantastic position to take, because things like bullying, harassment, making fun of people for how they look are absolutely inappropriate and that’s what we need to focus on, teaching something every child can learn from.”
But after the hiring of DEI consultant Christina Hale-Elliott, Schaedel said, he felt a shift in the district’s attitude and language. (Hale-Elliott was enlisted for a year to conduct outreach and professional development with LCUSD staff and parents, and she also held focus group discussions with students, a process that was interrupted by school facility closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.)
In reporting her findings and recommendations to the school board in August, Hale-Elliott referenced research from the 1619 Project (an initiative launched by the New York Times Magazine in 2019) and Ibram X. Kendi, an author and scholar on race and discriminatory policy in America.
“The district hired a consultant who I think comes from a very particular perspective. Her intellectual underpinnings are things like the 1619 Project, the writings of Ibram Kendi, Howard Zinn and others… who all have an interesting perspective, but it’s all coming from one way,” Schaedel said. “So the district’s focus sort of morphed and now it’s not about inclusion, empathy and personal dignity, it’s now about diversity, equity and inclusion … which is fine, but when you define it in such a way as to say these are the major problems, the district is inherently racist, systemically racist, racist in its founding, and my touchstones for this are Ibram Kendi and the 1619 Project? Well, I think it was certain the report would come out the way it did.”
Eric Fan, also a longtime LCF resident who also has children who have attended LCUSD schools, said he read Hale-Elliott’s report and took umbrage at both the findings and recommendations. The consultant cited reports that the founding of LCUSD in the early 60s was based on white flight from the newly integrated Pasadena Unified School District, and referenced “restorative justice” to those beginnings.
“You can’t fight racism with racism. Some of the proposals are very one-sided and push the narrative of white oppression. And yes, if we truly look at history with 21st century eyes (at the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and further back), we don’t agree with what happened back then,” said Fan, who identifies as Asian American. “There are a lot of references to ‘restorative justice.’ But some of the recommendations are based on hating whites or anyone except POC people [People of Color] and basically blaming everything that is negative in their lives on white people and not looking at the broader picture of choice and decisions we make. Well, we need to elevate ourselves and say, ‘Hey, let’s stop blaming people.’ Let’s rise above this and come up with mutual solutions that work for everybody.
“[Hale-Elliott] talks about restorative justice, one of the tenets of Black Lives Matter. Well, how can we take that and mold it into something that doesn’t promote hatred of one group over another?” Fan concluded.
Paul Moll, also a district parent, said he also rejects the idea that LCUSD was founded on racism.
“A district is made up of people, and I do not believe the people here are racist, and I think the majority of people in this city do not believe that the people who run the school district are racist. But it feels like that’s the subject of the entire report and recommendations,” said Moll, who noted that his wife and children are Hispanic.

A CALL FOR CONVERSATIONS

Tavera, Schaedel, Fan and Moll all said it has felt as if the DEI study, findings and recommendations are being advanced too quickly at the district level. None of them were consulted in the process, they said, and they would like to be.
“I feel like [Hale-Elliott] is leaning into how fast and furious we should go with this plan. Well, I’d like to get more parent involvement in this conversation,” said Fan. “This has become a much more serious issue, so let’s get serious about it. Let’s have more of these open conversations with the community. Do we throw the report out? Or do we say, ‘Yes, follow this and close the doors’? Absolutely not. Just like everything we need a consensus in the middle. So let’s come up with a process within our community and figure out where we can have that consensus and how we want to have our kids educated in LCUSD.”
Schaedel is also in favor of a parent-heavy committee to study DEI initiatives: “We should try to understand her proposals, not just accept them as adopted policy. It troubles me that there are people who feel this is being jammed and fast-tracked. [DEI] might be a fashionable trend right now, but let’s focus on STEM, class sizes, if online education is working. … It feels like we’re only focused on this one issue right now.”

RACIST LANGUAGE, BULLYING SEEN AS DISCIPLINE PROBLEM

In her report, Hale-Elliott cited a survey in which 1,207 students responded to “Hearing Negative Terms Based on Difference.” About 70% of respondents reported hearing others being called a negative or hurtful term based on a perceived difference from other students based on race, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, etc.
Tavera said he’s aware of kids using that language as if they’re “wannabe rappers,” and also sees it as a form of bullying. His own daughters ended up leaving the district because of bullying, he added.
“There’s a lot of pieces to this puzzle, but I think overall it’s a discipline issue. If it happens, it should be dealt with quickly and swiftly,” he said.
Fan echoed that sentiment, and said teachers need to be better empowered to call out students who are using inappropriate language.
“No one should be saying hurtful things. … Let’s empower the staff to be the staff to intervene when that language is thrown around.”
Moll concurred, adding that he prefers that staff deal with disciplinary issues rather than hiring a diversity officer at the district level, who might turn into the “diversity police.”
“We do not need an expensive new bureaucracy with dedicated employees. … There were some valid issues pointed out [in Hale-Elliott’s] findings, but those can be handled by the staff at school,” he said.
Going forward, Tavera, Moll, Schaedel and Fan said there are more DEI issues they hope to discuss, including any changes to the curriculum and hiring of staff based on ethnicity or race. They said they hope their opinions are taken into consideration, just as with anyone else in the district.
“I think [DEI] is a very fashionable trend right now. But there’s a pendulum and these things swing back and forth. … What I’d like to see our community do is keep the pendulum in the middle,” Schaedel said. “We need to take a longer road on this. Let’s slow it down and hear what everyone has to say; let’s respect each other’s differences, and that includes differences of opinion.”

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