Newport-Mesa OKs modified contract with Anti-Defamation League for training on bias

The Anti-Defamation League's Peter Levi, right, speaks Tuesday to Newport-Mesa Unified School District trustees.
(Screenshot by Sara Cardine)

Easing concerns about critical race theory being taught at Newport-Mesa Unified School District schools, trustees agreed Tuesday to continue anti-bias trainings from the Anti-Defamation League but omitted an advanced course for staff designed to explore privilege, power dynamics and oppression.

NMUSD in 2019 began offering anti-bias classes for secondary school employees and volunteer student peer leaders through the league’s “A World of Difference” program following the recommendation of a districtwide human relations task force.

That panel was formed after an incident of anti-Semitism among Newport Harbor High School students at an off-campus party made national headlines.

Board members were poised last month to approve a contract with the New York nonprofit to continue courses into the new school year, expanding basic training at secondary school sites and offering advanced level staff training, at a cost not to exceed $38,500.

Newport Mesa Unified Interim Superintendent Hank Bangser and Board President Karen Yelsey during a board meeting Tuesday.
Newport Mesa Unified School District’s Interim Superintendent Hank Bangser and board President Karen Yelsey listen to public comments during a board meeting on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

But, when parents decried the move as bringing critical race theory — the controversial and recently politicized study of viewing societal systems through a lens of racism, privilege and power — into the classroom, trustees tabled the matter to give the lessons a closer look.

Asst. Supt. Kerrie Torres said Tuesday her department reviewed the proposed contract and recommended eliminating second-level anti-bias courses for school employees, reducing the contract amount to $27,800.

“After reviewing the content, and after meeting with the ADL partners that we have, we removed that from tonight’s contract,” Torres told the board. “You will not see the [advanced] training on our agenda item this evening.”

Trustees explained the move would allow Newport-Mesa to continue with the same training offered in years past (but postponed during the pandemic) while expanding into middle schools. They did not discuss the content of the second-level trainings.

Information provided by ADL to the district in July, however, indicates advanced courses dive deeper into “the dynamics of power, privilege and perspective and how they inform and impact the creation and understanding of stereotypes and bullying.”

Participants examine privilege within systems of oppression, learn to effectively respond to incidents at school and “begin to move forward as change agents.”

“We have long believed education is the best antidote to hate and bias, which is why for the last 2½ years we’ve successfully partnered with [NMUSD] to create safe and inclusive schools for all students” Anti-Defamation League Regional Director Peter Levi told board members.

Levi said among students who’d participated in the lessons, 98% reported having a strong understanding of being an ally and supporting targets of prejudice, while 91% of teachers said they felt more comfortable responding to incidents of bullying and bias.

Principals from high schools where ADL courses were taught in the recent past roundly agreed the World of Difference program lived up to its name. Newport Harbor High’s Sean Boulton said the peer leadership program has made a significant impact on students.

“We have students out in the community, out in the hallways, in the classrooms calling out other students on the silly things they do, the hurtful things they do and about the hateful things that seem like a joke that are really not,” Boulton said. “It’s been fantastic to have that.”

Parents and community members spoke both for and against discussing diversity, inclusion and race on school grounds. Some were shocked to see the ADL contract tabled in the first place, while others said teachers should concentrate on academics and leave kindness and empathy lessons to parents.

Board President Karen Yelsey recalled the impetus for the Human Relations Task Force and the anti-bias trainings, sharing how strongly community members felt students should be instructed on empathy and kindness following the March 2019 school scandal.

“Something between 2019 and 2021 has changed, just in the rhetoric of what’s going on. We’re reading into things that shouldn’t be issues or read into,” she said. “I do feel strongly that this is something we need.”

Board members approved the reduced contract for the 2021-22 school year. Trustee Ashley Anderson said she favored surveying district staff to see if they’d want to participate in the advanced courses at some point in the future.

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