S.E Williams | Contributor
Members of the community spoke out during the July 21, 2020 meeting of the Riverside Unified School District’s Board of Education.
Interest in the session was high due to concerns over a Board proposal many in the community perceived as an attempt to restructure and condense a valued program of Ethnic, Black and Latino Studies—curriculum taught to students in the district for years.
This very important issue collided with another pressing agenda topic, finalizing a way forward in relation to reopening Riverside Unified School District.
Perhaps the most telling part of the meeting was not the explanation offered by the Board of “poor communications,” as the core reason for the community’s perception; nor the expeditious way the Board back-peddled away from its plans to change the curriculum—at least in the near term; nor, the many pending issues about reopening schools.
Instead, the Board has decided to regroup and reconsider how to restructure the Ethnic, African American and Chicano studies curriculum, this time with input from key stakeholders including teachers and parents.
These were all important details as was the wealth of passionate testimony from community members who spoke out in support of the minority-based curriculum.
However, it was the scathing and accusatory statement made by Board Member Tom Hunt at the end of a long night of discussion that was perhaps the most compelling and revealing statement of the evening, which to many in attendance spoke most loudly and showed most clearly, why these classes are so essential. Hunt
appeared tone deaf in his closing proclamation.
It was near midnight when he spoke, and it is important to keep in mind school board members—including Hunt—are locally elected public officials.
“The role of the school board is to ensure that school districts are responsive to the values, beliefs and priorities of their communities,” it clearly states on the Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) website, something to be considered in relation to the following comments by Hunt.
“We spent a lot of time this evening, in my opinion wasted, having to clarify something that we didn’t do, something that we would never do, which is to get rid of ethnic studies.
And, Dr. Hansen took the fall on that because of communications but, I’m just thinking that communications go both ways.
We are not dealing with a normal time now and since this is the witching hour –I want to speak to the coven out there [a reference to those in the community who participated in the session in person and electronically].
Those same people that really stirred this up and took a spark and fanned it into a conflagration of all of this, have met with Dr. Hansen a week and half [ago] or before that. They had his phone number.
None of these people I know are leading this, called Dr. Hansen or any of us. They all know us. They did not do it.”
Hunt continued, “This is not the time folks I’m speaking to out there [again referring to members of the community] to be messing with the school district like this.
We have very important work to do right now. We have 40K young people’s lives and futures to care about and how we are going to do it, how we are going to bring everything together. We have 4K wonderful dedicated employees whose careers they’re wondering about and their professions. So, to do this, was a disservice to your own community.”
“When you took it and you knew this didn’t happen,” he said accusingly. “[A]and you decided to make an issue about it because you can’t come out from behind the rock and attack me or Mrs. [Patricia] Lock-Dawson directly.”
Continuing he claimed, “You want to use this district somehow as a cudgel to beat others. We don’t have time for that because we have too many important things to be doing.”
Hunt then transitioned from his declarations and began lecturing those in attendance.
“So please, be responsible citizens—which I’m sure is falling on deaf ears—but, let’s just call it as it is. You created a panic that wasn’t needed, upset people and upset the time we have to work on things.”
He then delivered what many considered his most condescending and disrespectful comments, “Grow up,” he declared! Be mature citizens, and go about your work.”
Hunt went on to admonish the audience, “Next time, by the way, you want to accuse the district of not having enough minority employees, I think you ought to do what I did. Look at your own records, and this building and what it represents in this district. It has more minorities in high positions and overall than that seven-story building downtown does.”
In closing, Hunt threw down the gauntlet. “Let’s just call it straight. Let’s meet out in the streets if you want and we’ll do it that way, we’ll have the arguments, but don’t use this district for your own gain and self-interest.”
Perhaps equally concerning as Hunt’s remarks was the unsolicited affirmation to his statements offered by RUSD Board President Kathy Allavie who first thanked Hunt before proclaiming, “Well said.” This signaled to many her concurrence with and support of his comments.
California Assemblymember Jose Medina, who represents parts of Riverside County and taught in the Riverside Unified School District for years and watched the school board meeting remotely, described Hunt’s comments as offensive adding, “I do think many in the community have taken offense to what Hunt said.” Noting, “It is as if he said to parents and others who spoke out, “You don’t matter and what you say, has no value.”
Medina noted there was faculty from UCR, Corey Jackson from NAACP, and others who attended (many virtually) that night. “There was about an hour of testimony, most of it submitted before the board meeting, and they just read it over the video. I would say it’s moving and compelling in support of ethnic studies in RUSD but there is a disagreement among the board members and the community regarding what transpired.”
According to Medina, teachers, and counselors from RUSD understood the class of ethnic diversity was being eliminated. Teachers received an email from district administrators saying they would not be teaching that class in the coming year. He said the teachers received the unexpected email about two weeks ago.
RUSD employees who wished not to be identified but were familiar with what occurred offered a level of clarity to what happened. “One course, ethnic diversity was taken off the books,” a district employee said about the proposed changes. “They [also] made changes to African American studies so it would be simpler in terms of scheduling. They wanted to get these classes [Ethnic, Black and Latino studies] into all the schools, not this year, but in the upcoming year.”
“I think they felt justified making the change because they were replacing it with the new [ethnic studies] classes in the 9th and 11th grades, but somewhere along the lines the teachers found out the ethnic diversity course was being changed, and they had not even been informed of any pending change until they received an official letter,” said another.
One of the proposed changes involved shortening the current year-long African American class to a semester and marrying it with a semester of Chicano studies to round out the year.
Retired teacher Haniyyah Mubashshir who taught African American Studies for 18 years at Poly High School said although the class was initially a semester class, it eventually became a year-long course. “It was impossible to do justice to the scope of the Black experience, from Imhotep to Obama, in twenty weeks,” Mubashshir shared adding all three courses, including Chicano Studies and Ethnic Studies, should be full-year classes.
“Was there miscommunication? I think so,” a district employee said. “They are so focused on reopening the schools, sanitizing, and bargaining. With so much going on, this probably would have gone through had the community not weighed in.”
Still another employee was more generous in their assessment of what occurred. “I don’t think this was done with malice.” When asked to explain this conclusion they offered, “Because the district did support the program last year by trying to promote these programs. I think in the end, it was more of a bureaucratic decision, but they were not expecting anyone to question it.”
These comments about miscommunication and a belief the failure was not malicious, lends consideration to the heightened sensibilities of these unprecedented times. Unfortunately, this miscommunication also conflicted in time with reopening schools possibly adding to an undercurrent of tensions.
It is widely known, minority communities and their supporters, are locked in an historic and credible battle for equity and parity in all aspects of society and are possibly more civically engaged now than ever before, in their quest for an end to institutional and systemic racism. At the same time, an unprecedented health crisis has changed the way we live, work , play and educate our children–a responsibility most officials including Medina, Hunt and others, take seriously.
Hunt acknowledged the ham-handed handling of the situation by the district, especially in the midst of everything going on, and agreed it was not the best time for such a breakdown in communications. Yet, he remained steadfast in the comments he delivered that evening.
This was due in part to his concerns regarding the myriad of issues under consideration by the board related to reopening local schools slated for discussion the same evening and there were several outstanding questions requiring answers to meet the needs of various stakeholders including students and their families, teachers, administrators, support personnel.
Hunt explained he made the comment because he believed by the start of the board meeting, most groups expressing frustration with the school district’s proposed changes to ethnic studies, were probably already aware the board had rescinded its proposal.
It is also possible, however, many or most of the participants were not aware the district’s plans were changed, until Dr. David Hansen made his comments and Rene Hill made her presentation at the opening of the meeting.
Regardless of who knew what and when, the wheels were already in motion when the meeting began, written comments were already submitted and scheduled for reading and so to some extent, the die was cast.
Hunt is sensitive to the importance of a curriculum that includes an equitable focus on the contributions and legacy of the diverse groups contributing to the nation’s history. It is something he has supported during his tenure and also supports its expansion.
He said he never meant to offend those who rallied in good faith to speak out on the value of ethnic studies and expressed regret to anyone who was offended. He stated again, while he reaffirmed the criticism he levied against some, it was not directed to those with good intentions but rather to those he believed pushed the issue as a way to possibly harm him politically. Hunt is in a race for reelection.
In explaining his comments Hunt reiterated one of the key areas he was focused on that evening. “The coronavirus pandemic has caused extreme uncertainty in every school campus across our nation,” he said. “When I made my closing comments at 12:10 am during our board meeting, I was thinking about the 40,000 children in our school district whose health, well-being, and futures are at stake. I was thinking about the thousands of parents who are confused, worried, and upset as they had just another 48 hours to register their students in one of three options offered, the third being presented that evening.”
According to Hunt, the gravity of the decision parents were being asked to make with so many questions remaining unanswered, contributed to his statement that night. “I wish I’d done it better, but as I realized we were coming to the end [of the meeting and] there were 1800 people waiting online.” He also noted the governor had just announced a major reversal in how the state planned to operate in light of COVID-19 the same day.
There is little doubt many of the 1800 people left online that night had questions about reopening the schools; yet it is equally fair to consider some of those waiting may also have wanted to weigh in on the ethnic studies controversy.
Although Hunt was still frustrated with those he believed could have called board members for clarity about the ethnic studies issue and believes they could have worked to tamp down the community reaction, when he was asked what responsibility the district had in creating the whole problem in the first place, he readily acknowledged many on the Board were also caught off guard. “We did not know,” he admitted.” They [the district] might have run it by us. We did not know and the teachers did not know.”
Medina noted from the beginning, “There are often different sides to a story. “The reason I got involved is because Riverside Unified School District [employees] contacted me to say the class of ethnic diversity, the class I taught at Poly high school years back, was being eliminated this year The teachers got emails from district administrators saying they would not be teaching that class ethnic diversity in the upcoming year.”
RUSD Board started the July 21 board meeting with a presentation on ethnic studies. “They put a chart up there that you can see that had last year another part of the chart saying
what they were trying to do in the coming academic year,” Medina explained. “They were taking the curriculum out of ethnic diversity class and fitting it into the existing 9th grade English class and into the existing 11th grade U.S. history class.
“But as most of the people who spoke [during the RUSD meeting] spelled out, he continued, “The teachers who taught that class, thought those kind of things should already be in 9th grade English and 11th grade U.S. history [classes] and that did not justify getting rid of this ethnic diversity class that has been taught for many years in Riverside Unified.”
Knowing the history of this curriculum Medina shared how it originally came about because students many years ago walked out of school, boycotted classes and demanded those classes. Medina described RUSD’s decision to just say, without much warning at all, they were not going to be teaching those classes next year as, “arbitrary.”
The Board was also proposing a current year long class of African-American studies at Poly High School was going to be shortened to a semester class and offered with Chicano studies to make a one year class.
“All of this is on their chart and the school district claims it was miscommunication between the district and I don’t know who—the community, maybe teachers—and then they [said they] never had any intent of getting rid of ethnic studies,” he shared
Medina continued, “And then at the very end of the board meeting you hear Tom Hunt going on about how egregious it was for the community to put out misinformation and not contacting the Superintendent.”
Medina called Hunt’s statement drama. It’s the same kind of drama we’re seeing in lots of different places. It’s almost like, ‘Don’t believe your lying eyes, this is what we’re doing and you’re keeping us from doing it here’ . . . It is, ‘we weren’t really going to do that,’ but here are the emails and it’s on the charts presented during the meeting by Renee Hill, RUSD Chief Academic Officer.
Medina had a conversation with Hill about what was unfolding. “I don’t know how much involvement she had in the process because she’s only been back two weeks,” Medina offered. “The way it ended, they said, ‘We’re going back to what we had.’”
Medina and Mubashshir were co-workers and forerunners in the introduction of ethnic studies to RUSD students years ago, and like Medina, Mubashshir also stands firm in her belief about the importance and value of these courses not only to Riverside students but to all students.
“If we truly are the land of the free and the home of the brave,” she declared, “then telling the whole history of our country—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is the most patriotic thing we can do for our children.”