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by Mark McDermott
Fred Taylor was mad as hell and he wasn’t going to take it anymore.
The 45 year Manhattan Beach resident had rarely involved himself in local governance, but over the summer he started regularly attending Manhattan Beach Unified School District board meetings. At each meeting, he spoke during the public comment section. Taylor expressed outrage about the district’s vaccination and mask policies, arguing against both as unscientific and discriminatory. But his biggest issue was what he believed was the invasion of anti-white racism via Critical Race Theory into MBUSD schools, and particularly an equity audit the district had commissioned.
Taylor was largely civil in his comments until the night of September 1. That night, he focused his attention on school board member Jason Boxer, a 29-year-old teacher who was elected last year and who identifies as non-binary. This means that Boxer prefers the pronouns they/them as a way of not being identified based on gender.
Taylor, who identifies himself at most board meetings as a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, and the proud father of two girls, had brought printouts of two Instagram posts by Boxer to the meeting. The board takes comments via a video camera just outside the meeting room. Taylor held printouts of each post up to the camera.
The first post urged people to vote against the recall of Governor Gavin Newsom. Taylor questioned the appropriateness of Boxer taking a public stance. “To me, that looks like the entire board has come into unity to keep Newsom in place during the recall,” Taylor said. “I had always thought that school boards were intended to be non-partisan.”
But the second post animated Taylor more. It announced a meeting of the Gender Sexuality Alliance at Mira Costa High School.
“With all due respect, the same sitting board member, Jason Boxer, they/them, posted this. ‘We’re here, and we’re queer,’” Taylor said. “The Queer Club, his terminology, meets every Wednesday at noon in Room 23. I can’t imagine what they talk about. How far, parents, have we gone down the moral cesspool in this district? This has to end.”
Craig, Jonny, Casey, and Madeline Kaplan at MBUSD headquarters at the Oct. 6 rally. Photo byPatricia Yates
School board president Jen Fenton interjected after Taylor’s comments.
“I don’t think name-calling is appropriate, and I don’t think shaming is appropriate,” Fenton said. “We are a board. We represent the district. We can agree to disagree, but I’d like everybody to remain respectful.”
Taylor has not been alone in his attacks. A handful of other like-minded parents also attend each meeting, and often Manhattan Beach City Council meetings, where they also speak during public comments about the schools, though MBUSD is not under the purview of city government. Also, two anonymous groups, the South Bay Education Alliance and We The Parents, have emerged largely around the notion that an academic field called Critical Race Theory is being taught at local schools. Their language, politics, and mode of attack are nearly identical, so it’s possible they are the same group. They issue newsletters and offer templates for electronically submitted comments to the board. In recent meetings, those comments have burgeoned, often numbering in the dozens.
“Make no mistake Critical race theory is in MBUSD,” read one comment in September. “MB PARENTS ASK RESIDENTS FOR HELP ENDING THIS TOXIC TEACHING IN OUR SCHOOLS!”
“MBUSD Equity, Diversity, Social Justice and Inclusion (EDSJI) will destroy the best in nation educational system, academics will be tossed aside for social justice,” read another, which, like most included links to far-right, pro-Trump blogs such as The Federalist.com. “Read more about Social Justice How ‘Socio-Emotional Learning’ Became Another Vehicle For Anti-White Racism In Schools.”
Other posts were more specific. One, for example, questioned why a college preparatory, semester-long seminar course called “Love, Marriage, Delusions?” was being taught at Mira Costa High School. It included a course description from an MBUSD catalog:
“This course is intended as a serious, but intermittently lighthearted look at a supposedly light-hearted but serious subject…love, and especially at the sort of love that culminates, and often self-destructs, in the institution called marriage. Students will examine the relationship between romantic love – both traditional and non-traditional and begin to develop opinions on the relevance of traditional marriage, the optimum age for courtship and marriage, and the ways in which gender roles and aging influence the marriage contract.”
“Who approved this course,” read the comment. “Why is this being taught at MC. Parents must speak up!”
Some posts included video links, mostly to the South Bay Education Alliance’s YouTube page, which has 15 subscribers and a half dozen videos focusing on CRT. Nearly every one of the posts, though anonymous, included a template-like disclaimer. “Do not release my personal information. I am a resident of MB. Name withheld by request.”
Things boiled over at the September 22 board meeting. The issue on this night was less about CRT and more about MBUSD safety protocols around COVID-19. It began with Cindy Bond, a parent of two kids at Mira Costa, who showed up wearing a mask that had the words “This mask does nothing” printed across it. She questioned the COVID testing protocols student-athletes face within MBUSD. Those who are not vaccinated must be tested regularly.
“I think it’s common knowledge, and I hope you all are aware, that the vaccines do not decrease or prevent the spread of COVID,” Bond said. “Also, if you’ve been following the recent data, vaccinated individuals have been contracting COVID at a rate of at least three times that of the unvaccinated. So when I look at this protocol, I see no logical explanation for it, nor do I see science to support it. All I see is discrimination, shaming, bullying…So the vaccinated don’t get tested, but a vaccinated child that has COVID can transmit back to my son, and then guess who’s going to test positive? The unvaccinated child. And therefore, the unvaccinated can be blamed for the outbreak. That’s the only reason for this policy. So I really think that the school district should take a look at this because it is completely discriminatory and therefore illegal.”
Fred Taylor was next up. He expressed irritation with wearing his mask — “I can’t breathe,” he said, pointing at his mask — and then attacked the district’s COVID protocols. He cited CDC statistics showing 300 COVID-19 related deaths among the nation’s 73 million school-aged kids. “That’s a survival rate of 99.9996 percent,” he said. “I’ll take that any day of the week.” He referred to the Provincetown July 4 gathering at which 462 people contracted COVID, including 74 percent who were vaccinated, and a Duke study that showed 304 students testing positive, only eight of whom were unvaccinated.
“We are the parents. We are not the school board here. You, Jen Fenton, Sally Peel, Jennifer Cochran, Cathey Graves, and Jason Boxer,” Taylor said, naming each board member. “What gives you the right to extort my kids’ education, tied to an experimental gene therapy injection with hundreds of thousands of adverse incidents?”
A little bit later, the public testimony portion of the board meeting disintegrated to something approaching a farce. Parent Britney Nucci walked into the public comment area with a mask on. Fenton asked her to hitch her mask up to cover her nose. Instead, Nucci took the mask off.
“Actually, I am not going to wear it, because I missed lunch today, so I’m going to be eating and drinking while I speak,” Nucci said.
A security guard off camera politely told Nucci she needed to wear a mask to speak.
“No, I don’t,” she said. “It’s completely illegal for you to ask me to wear a mask.”
She took a big slug of water as she began talking — about vaccine discrimination — and pulled out a plastic bag with some food in it. The security guard tried to broker a deal, telling her she could take the microphone outside to make her comment in the open air if she liked. “No,” she said. “I am going to stand right here….I am eating and drinking.”
Fenton recessed the meeting. When the video meeting resumed minutes later, Nucci was gone.
Such testimony is indicative of the nationwide confusion surrounding vaccination and the efficacy of masks. The Center for Disease Control, largely due to findings in Provincetown, reversed its earlier position that vaccinated people cannot transmit COVID-19. This was part of the reason, along with the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant, that many mask requirements were reinstated, particularly indoors, after a relaxation of such protocols in June. Because COVID-19 is still a relatively new disease, its study remains very much a living science, and transmission rates are hard to firmly establish due to how many people who are asymptomatic, yet have COVID-19, go undetected. But while “breakthrough” cases among the vaccinated are clearly more common than was originally believed, most of those cases go no further than infection — the disease itself is much less likely to advance in the vaccinated. The CDC, based on a study conducted in LA County, found that unvaccinated people are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated people and 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19. The CDC also reports that the unvaccinated are five times more likely to contract the virus.
Fenton has grown tired of what she believes is a misinformation campaign that demonizes public education leaders and teachers.
“Beyond the misinformation that is circulating throughout the community, there is a large amount of disinformation about MBUSD and the board, which is deliberately misleading and completely false,” Fenton said, in an interview. “Before the September 22nd meeting, several people contacted the board about a vaccine mandate that was neither discussed, nor included on the agenda. Someone was clearly misinforming the public.”
Fenton also stressed that any suggestion that Critical Race Theory has entered MBUSD classrooms is false.
“With respect to curriculum, our district continues to follow state-mandated guidelines,” she said. “Any changes involve an extensive process with both teacher and parent input.”
But what occurred at the September 22 meeting proved only to be a precursor to a more virulent attack — this time, aimed directly at Fenton.
On the afternoon of October 2, a newsletter was emailed by We The Parents. It was titled, “MB Schools use Sexually Explicit Materials in the Classroom.” Dozens and possibly hundreds of people received the email who were not subscribed to We The Parents newsletter. Whoever sent it apparently had access to a database that included a significant swath of the MBUSD community.
“Dear MB Residents,” the letter began. “Our MB schools have long been the gold standard in the South Bay and a draw for new families with school age children. Residents whose children attended our schools over the years have wonderful testimonies of exceptional teachers, a rigorous education, and a School Board that never wavered from the Mission of Academic Excellence and Character Development.
“We’ve been so confident in the success of our schools, it never occurred to most residents that any elected School Board Member would abandon the Mission. But that is exactly what has happened since School Board President Jen Fenton was elected three years ago.”
The letter linked Fenton to another debate in the community, the controversy that arose when the racist history of Bruce’s Beach was brought into focus in the wake of the national Black Lives Matter movement and, locally, the activism of the Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement. Bruce’s Beach was a Black-owned and operated resort on the Manhattan Beach waterfront that was taken from the Bruce family in the 1920s through the City’s racially motivated use of eminent domain power. The City formed a Bruce’s Beach Task Force last year to more fully examine that history and determine what actions might be taken now to redress the wrongs that occurred in the ‘20s. The Task Force became a lightning rod for those against the City issuing an apology (the Council voted 4-1 against doing so) ,and for the larger issues of systemic racism the history it examined brought into discussion.
“Fenton subscribes to the same beliefs as the group of locals who accused MB of Systemic Racism and needing a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (DEIC) to train residents to be ‘Anti-Racists’,” the WeTheParents letter said. “In a 4-1 vote, City Council rejected the request by the Bruce’s Beach Task Force members to be a DEIC, but that did not stop Fenton from targeting our schools for something much worse. Under Fenton’s leadership, she has replaced Academic Excellence and Character Development with ideological beliefs in Social Justice, Gender Fluidity, Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, White Fragility, and Racial Reckoning, just to name a few. If you’re not familiar with these terms, you’re not alone.”
The City Council did indeed reject most of the Task Force’s recommendations, including the formation of a DEIC committee. And much of the Council’s discussion of the matter was both critiqued and often influenced by a newsletter from another anonymous group, BrucesBeachGetTheFacts. Over the past year, six such anonymous newsletter groups have popped up locally, all focused on race-based issues.
The WeTheParents newsletter went on to criticize the school board’s public comment policy because unlike the City Council, people are unable to comment via Zoom, but must either appear outside the MBUSD meeting room or email comments. But the blame was not leveled at the board collectively, but rather Fenton, whom the letter depicted as operating with unilateral authority (in fact, all board actions require a majority vote), both in handling public input and in hiring the Center for Leadership Equity and Research (CLEAR) to perform a needs assessment for the district.
“She intends to hire CLEAR, a company that will act as the race and equity police with classroom walkthroughs, race training for teachers, targeting our youngest with ‘choosing your gender’ lesson plans, and more,” the letter said. “She already paid CLEAR $25,000 to write a report, concluding the Board should hire them!”
Nearly all the accusations were without factual basis, other than that CLEAR was hired to perform an equity audit, a report that will be presented at a October 20 workshop, but was made public two months ago. The newsletter also attacked a book being used in 9th-grade curriculum, “Slay,” by Brittney Morris (a critically praised Young Adult novel about a Black teenage game developer who is attacked by an internet troll for anti-white discrimination), which includes profanities, and another book used at Mira Costa called “This Book is Antiracist: 20 lessons on how to wake up, take action, and do the work,” by Tiffany Jewell (also a book widely praised by such publications as the School Library Journal, USA Today, and Time magazine). The letter asked for parents to give input to the school board and demanded, among other things, Fenton’s resignation should she not allow public input via Zoom.
“We are a large network of like-minded MB Residents,” the newsletter said. “Our Network consists of both Liberal and Conservative residents committed to restoring Academic Excellence in our schools.”
After the newsletter appeared, Fenton received other emails from parents who’d read its contents. She read from two of those emails at the October 6 board meeting.
“What kind of person/infant/suckling are you that you can’t accept real communication from parents?” read one. Another asked, “Is it worth having your family hated?”
Fenton filed a report with the Manhattan Beach Police Department regarding the newsletter and refuted its claims, point by point, in a statement delivered at the outset of the Oct. 6 meeting. She reiterated that MBUSD curriculum follows all state standards, and that no radical agenda has made its way into instruction that remains, as measured by student performance, among the best in the state and the nation.
“I unilaterally do not have the authority to impart CRT, White Fragility, or Racial Reckoning into our teacher’s course material,” Fenton said. “Nor have we, as a governing body, ever discussed these theories or their application in our K-12 instruction. MBUSD has always and will continue to teach ‘real’ math, science, history and English. We follow state-mandated guidelines including Common Core Standards, CA Content Standards and CA Curriculum Framework. We have never veered from the agenda of providing the best education for our students.”
Fenton also noted that CLEAR had a contract to complete its audit that ran from Feb. 8 to June 30, and no discussion has occurred about future services from the consulting group. Fenton said that spreading falsehoods about these and other matters is a disservice to the entire MBUSD community.
“Speaking directly to those behind We The Parents MB, your dissenting voice has been heard, now stop disseminating lies,” Fenton said.
She welcomed public comment, but urged that the anonymous attacks to cease.
“I am a lawyer by trade and I wholeheartedly believe in the right to free speech. Your access to the board is unlimited. But when you, as a nameless and faceless group, disseminate lies, slander, defame, even bully someone, you have gone too far.”
The last 18 months have been wearying for all involved in public education. When the pandemic arrived, school districts had to adapt to distance learning within a matter of weeks. Then, as the pandemic wore on, parents grew impatient with distance learning, and began agitating for in-person instruction well before it was legally allowed. Last March, a group founded by parent Tiffany Wright called Kids Need Classrooms in Manhattan Beach held a rally in which photos of district leaders were held up on sticks as speeches were given labeling them as “red lighters” who were responsible for keeping kids out of classrooms. Though this was not an anonymous group, its tactics were similar in that it essentially demonized education leaders.
“My face, along with others on this board, has been plastered on a poster and boo’ed in town,” Fenton said. “I have received emails telling me I’m stupid, I should be ashamed of myself, and I’m incompetent. And now there is a newsletter from We the Parents MB that is 100 percent false and trying to destroy my reputation. This is not okay. I love Manhattan Beach, but I have never seen some members of this community stoop to this level.”
Shawn Chen, the head of the Manhattan Beach Teachers Association, said that many parents engaged in protests seem to have lost sight of the core values they seek to uphold in schools.
“The Kids Need Classrooms founder held a rally which utilized the barbaric technique of holding up the dismembered heads of both school board members and union leaders on pikes, blaming them for the ‘closure’ of schools,” Chen said. “That same founder then came to a board meeting with the expectation that her input might somehow have validity in the bargaining process.”
One parent who sent a threatening email to Chen after that rally was notified by the district that she had violated the MBUSD civility policy. That parent then took to social media to announce that she’d been found in violation of the policy.
“These parents are actually proud of themselves, and have begun to characterize uncivil behavior as ‘protest,’” Chen said. “Some seem to misunderstand the difference between bad manners and righteous pursuit of a worthy cause.”
At the board meeting, school board member Jennifer Cochran spoke in defense of Fenton.
“This has not been an easy time to serve on a school board and it’s certainly not an easy time to be a president of a school board,” Cochran said. “Jen has led us through a superintendent search, the reopening of schools, and the crazy ups and down of public health orders. The Attorney General recently said, ‘Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.’ That goes for teachers, school staff and school officials, as well. Suddenly everyone’s under attack…and it breaks my heart.”
More than 50 people arrived before the school board meeting last Wednesday in a show of support for Fenton, the school board, and MBUSD’s attempts to be more inclusive. The rally was organized by Diana Skaar of the group MB United, which was formed earlier this in response the rise of local anonymous groups and their attacks. The group’s intent is to be unifying and demonstrate that a majority of local residents do not share such beliefs. Those in attendance at the rally held signs aloft, including one that said, “Inclusion is kind. Equity is fair. Diversity is beautiful.”
That night, the board took voluminous testimony. Most of it was in defense of MBUSD. Parents spoke about how teachers’ efforts at inclusion, whether for a child of a differing ethnicity or facing a unique learning challenge, had made a difference.
Perhaps the most powerful testimony came from students.
Mira Costa senior Declan Hynes said the district’s efforts at providing
Equity, Diversity, Social Justice, and Inclusion (EDSJI) had given him and other students a better education.
“EDSJI and its goals have been completely misunderstood,” he said. “The reason we are discussing EDSJI today is due to longstanding issues of racism, sexism, and xenophobia in our state and country. Unfortunately, many of these terrible forms of discrimination are still prevalent today. But even throughout our recent history, these issues have been downplayed and ignored so people don’t have to face the uncomfortable and horrifying aspects of it all. My point is EDSJI aims to shed light on those who have suffered from discrimination in the past and to give those who suffer today a voice. It isn’t to brainwash students, to feed them false information, or to force an agenda on them or even to completely change the curriculum. It’s to discuss the truth to better understand the experiences of all.”
Hynes said he felt compelled to speak at the board meeting because some of these kinds of discussions in his classes have deeply impacted him in a positive way.
“I think having these open discussions with students and really diving into our history to its fullest extent is the best thing we could do, because as we know our school is very elite and has incredible students,” Hynes said. “I think these students having this information going on in life is invaluable because we know what these students can do.”
MCHS senior Garrett Nose argued that such education is not just theoretically important for students, but practical.
“I am currently in the process of applying to university, and leaving the bubble, and going out into the real world,” Nose said. “These real world demographics are completely different than Manhattan Beach.”
Nose cited U.S. Census data that showed those identifying as white dropped from 72.4 percent to 61.6 percent in the last 10 years while nearly every other ethnicity grew.
“I say this because this country is growing more and more diverse, and the chances of encountering, and seeing people of different backgrounds, different ethnicities, and different belief systems is incredibly high,” Nose said.
As has been the case for several months, emails poured in about Critical Race Theory, both anonymously and with names attached. One parent, Lindsey Willen Fox, read those comments and saw something familiar. She had a friend who worked for the Los Alamitos School District, which came under attack earlier this year in a similar manner when its school board approved an Ethnic Studies class, and social justice teaching standards. Los Alamos school board contacts were posted on far-right “Proud Boy” websites and the school district was suddenly awash in emails about Critical Race Theory.
Fox paid for a service that does address checks to determine where the CRT comments were coming from. “Turns out all of them are not only outside Manhattan or Hermosa, but outside California,” she said. “The same thing happened in Los Alamitos. People post district information on alt right websites and ask people to write in. Many of the authors are from Texas, Arizona, Florida, etc.”
Critical Race Theory has, in fact, been very purposely used as a political wedge as part of a national movement. One of the leading activists behind this push, Christopher F. Rufo, has been explicit about this. “We have successfully frozen their brand — critical race theory — into the public conversation and steadily driving up negative perceptions,” Rufo wrote on Twitter. “We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”
The ideas underlying CRT began with a civil right attorney named Derek Bell who worked on early school desegregation cases on behalf of NAACP, and then grew disillusioned that any public policy could undo racism — almost the opposite of what those waging a war on CRT claim as its intention. CRT at any rate is now an academic field strictly in higher education; virtually nobody is advocating it be taught in elementary or high schools.
The South Bay Education Alliance, in one of its videos, tellingly included a 13 second snippet of CLEAR CEO and founder Ken Magdaleno talking about CRT in which he says, “I really believe that teaching about Critical Race Theory needs to be mandatory…”
But the video is cut off mid sentence, and for a reason — Magdeleno was speaking in the context of a college-level discussion on race education.
“My belief regarding CRT is that it is a higher education subject and should not be taught in P-12,” Magdelano said via email. “The video is absolutely just a portion of the story. I do believe that in one form or another, an educated discussion about race should be taught in P-12. However, CRT is not that curriculum. As a Professor at Fresno State and Director of the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership, I am convinced of that.”
Jason Boxer, after the events of the September 22 board meeting, reached out to Fred Taylor. Boxer, believes deeply in inclusion and wanted to better understand where Taylor was coming from. Boxer came away from a meeting with Taylor convinced mainly of one thing — that Taylor is a well-meaning, deeply religious man with a lot of kindness in his heart.
“Fred is a very decent man. He comes from a very well-intentioned place,” Boxer said. “He is a very sincere man who possesses a deep faith in Christianity, and is very guided by his faith. I think if we really got to sit down and talk in detail, he and I would share a lot of opinions.”
Boxer believes Taylor’s attack had nothing to do with meanness of spirit and more to do with simply not having encountered anyone who identifies as they/them.
“What it is is a lack of exposure and a refusal to have an open mind and look out in the world,” Boxer said.
But that broader world, Boxer said, is coming to Manhattan Beach, with or without board policies, or the buy-in of people like Taylor and his fellow MBUSD critics — equity, diversity and inclusion are rising tides in history that will not be denied.
“This is occurring in the historical and political context of the present moment in which we have the single largest civil rights movement the world has ever seen,” Boxer said. “Millions of people have been out on the streets demanding justice, and with quite a lot of credibility…And we are seeing institutions trying to change in response to that, and now we are seeing people respond to those changes negatively.”
Boxer said none of the school board members had ever even heard of Critical Race Theory until people started protesting its alleged inclusion in MBUSD instruction. CRT is not at all an issue, Boxer said, but equity, diversity, social justice, and inclusion are something far beyond ideology, but simply real world practices in finding common ground with those not necessarily like ourselves.
“We have a community with very little exposure,” Boxer said. “What we can reasonably do about that is provide exposure through the wealth of literature that is out there that can provide a window into a world that is not really wealthy, white, part of mainstream culture and mainstream socio-economic structure. We can attempt to integrate and celebrate other cultures…and we can make it so anyone can see themselves reflected in events being celebrated and in day-to-day experiences.”
“It is an attempt to include everybody, to be truthful about how many groups have been treated unfairly in the United States and the world. And really, it’s an attempt not to be a dinosaur. This is where the world is headed, and we are long overdue.” ER
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