LCUSD Presents Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Framework

Nearly six months after including it as one of her goals for the academic year, Superintendent Wendy Sinnette presented to the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board the framework, commitment statement and three-year implementation plan of the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiative on Tuesday.
A virtual special meeting was held to allow the board to dive deep into the documents submitted by district staff. There were a total of 25 pages that included the district’s objectives and reasoning for DEI. The framework was a first-read item on the agenda, and the commitment statement, created to define DEI, and three-year plan were discussion items.
“It’s our desire to clearly articulate what this DEI work is, what its objectives are and in the design, we are also affirming and characterizing what it is not,” Sinnette said.
The board assured stakeholders that its DEI initiative is not a knee-jerk reaction to any particular incident but rather a part of the district’s goal of focusing on student wellness.
“It was so tightly linked to wellness, safety and security,” said board member Joe Radabaugh, who served as president last year. “We felt this was a natural link to the whole student and wellness. It’s not an out-of-nowhere-type of issue. It’s a build to just make kids a little bit better and the adults that are helping them along the way.”
Current President Kaitzer Puglia added that DEI gives students an opportunity to understand each other and create a better environment for all learners.
“We’re social beings and we crave a sense of belonging,” said Puglia, who works in education. “That’s one of our basic needs as are feeling safe and secure. Our responsibility as a board is to ensure that our [district] is doing that.”
The framework also includes a reason for DEI through the lens of employees, some of whom expressed uncertainty as to how to handle uncomfortable situations that involve race, bias or discrimination.
“In our increasingly complicated world, staff really wants guidance in how to respond to the challenges, in ways that they feel assured, that promotes student empathy, critical thinking, personal dignity, respect and engagement,” Sinnette said.
Part of the goal, she reiterated, is to provide comprehensive training to all district employees in DEI and restorative practices.
However, dozens of public comments expressed concern over the district “indoctrinating” children and implementing critical race theory, an academic movement that examines the dynamics of how race and racism are expressed throughout social institutions, especially law. Several commenters noted that some of the language used in the statement and definitions are similar to those who support CRT.
Sinnette admitted that some of the language is dense but assured the public that the district’s work is not being driven by CRT and the usage of words such as “marginalized” are common enough not to be only used by those who believe in the theory.
“We’re focusing on critical thinking, not critical race theory, because we want our students to espouse the tools and the talents to be able to be leaders in the world and the people who are able to go out and be really good human beings so that in the next generation, the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion have been solved and we have a society where people can come together, where there’s acceptance, valuing the unique essence of every single individual,” said Sinnette, who added that what was presented by staff will continue to evolve over time.
“Obviously, I’m no expert [in CRT] and I’ve done reading simply because this has become such a poignant topic for our community, but I don’t know how to allay the concerns when it’s not in any way part of our objectives,” Sinnette continued. “Our objectives are solely based on creating environments that are inclusive, where we focus on social-emotional wellness, where we have students who actively know how to exert agency, who feel comfortable expressing their individual identities and where we have environments supporting and nurturing for all learners.”
Radabaugh, who was a member of one of the DEI committees, defended the superintendent and said CRT never came up in any discussions.
“No philosophical orientation, no indoctrination,” Radabaugh said. “Nothing has been going on and people have been conflating. There is no hidden agenda here whatsoever.”
Some stakeholders requested that the district abandon DEI and shift its focus to reopening in-person learning, to which Sinnette responded that “there is no greater focus” than a return to normalcy in the 2021-22 academic year with a traditional five-day a week schedule. She, along with the governing board, believes that providing a safe, inclusive environment is essential as students develop a post-pandemic routine.
“We’re rebounding from COVID, identifying learning loss and serving our children. That’s the greatest priority, but social-emotional wellness, safety and security, all of those are going to be tip-top prime right there with getting them back academically,” Sinnette said. “This document helps serve all of that as well, because our kids may frequently come back fragile. They will need to feel included, they will need to have their differences celebrated, they will need a school district that embraces them and sets them on the course to being contributing members to a society that needs a lot of contributions on multiple fronts.”
Board members lauded LCUSD staff and the DEI committee members for their work in crafting the goals, commitments and definitions, but recommended that they clarify some of the language and define some words that could be misconstrued such as “affinity groups.”
Sinnette said staff will continue to refine the documents and recommended that the board move forward with a second reading of the framework and commitment statement at the April 27 meeting. In an effort to not overload the agenda for the next scheduled meeting, the three-year implementation plan will be further discussed in the board’s first meeting in May.