Are kids collateral damage in California culture wars?


Clovis Unified parents and students protest mask and vaccine mandates in February 2022.

Counterfeit dollar bills featuring a caricature of a Black man and racist comments circulated at a Sacramento secondary school.

10-year-old girl was called a “slave” by a classmate in Orange County. Bay Area high school students filmed themselves laughing and repeating an anti-Black racial slur. All this month in California.

Black students are more often the target of racial hostility than any other group of students, according to “Educating for a Diverse Democracy in California,” a joint report by the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access and the Civic Engagement Research Group at UC Riverside. As part of the study, the researchers surveyed 150 California principals about how the political dynamics of communities have impacted schools.

Sixty-six percent of the principals reported they are aware of racist comments made against Black students on their campuses; a third said such incidents are frequent. These verbal attacks speak to the presence of anti-Black racism that undermines the ability of young people to learn, said John Rogers, one of the study’s authors.

“We can’t normalize the fact that these (attacks) have become common in our public schools,” he said.

Political polarization and conflicts over racial and gender equity are now common at school board meetings and on school campuses across the state. They are negatively impacting school staff, undermining school management and heightening anxiety and hostility among students, according to the report.

“The ground shifted beneath their feet over a year and a half, and there were significant political events that occurred: the murder of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and on and on, the rise of Black Lives Matter and the protests, responses to the protest, the blue line flag, the 2020 election and Jan. 6,” said one California principal of students. “All these things happened while kids were in spaces that were not with us.”

Students, most in distance learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic, were unable to discuss these events at school with a diverse community of students. Instead, they either didn’t have these conversations or they had them around the dinner table, hearing only their family’s perspective, said the principal.

“So our kids came back to school with this very narrow perspective,” he said. “It was something that we hadn’t necessarily seen in the past. We didn’t have kids running around with political statements on their hats or shirts, necessarily, but I do think that they struggled a little bit to have empathy for groups that they didn’t necessarily understand.”

Political polarization growing

Almost two-thirds of California principals surveyed reported substantial local political conflict over educational issues at their schools. In many school districts, community members have tried to limit or challenge teaching about race, policies related to LGBTQ students, and access to social-emotional learning or to certain books in the library.

Political partisanship began boiling up after COVID school closures. Parents and other activists showed up at school board meetings demanding that schools reopen. They returned to protest mask mandates, vaccine mandates and other safety requirements. Once COVID-19 protocols loosened, conservative activists began fighting educational policies on gender identity and racial equity.

“It looks like political polarization and conflict is continuing to grow,” Rogers said. “Most recently there seems to be a focus on pushing back on LGBTQ rights or anything that resembles gender issues.”

Earlier this month a drag performance at a multicultural assembly at Pleasant Grove High School in Elk Grove drew protests from parents at a district school board meeting, according to SFGate. A similar performance planned at a Roseville high school in Placer County was canceled this month after it drew the ire of parents and local political groups, according to The Sacramento Bee.

Three-quarters of California principals who were surveyed say LGBTQ students at their schools have been the target of verbal attacks.

The California analysis follows a nationwide survey released last year. Researchers interviewed principals in blue, red and purple congressional districts during the summer of 2022 to determine how the partisan divide has impacted schools. Principals’ names were not included in the report.

Researchers labeled districts blue if fewer than 45% of the voters voted for Donald Trump for president in 2020, purple if 45% to 54.9% voted for Trump and red if more than 55% of the voters chose Trump.

The national study found that uncivil discourse and hostile political rhetoric has seeped into the nation’s classrooms, leading to declines in support for teaching about race and racism and sizable growth in harassment of LGBTQ youth. Principals in politically divided communities were twice as likely to report multiple instances of conflict at their schools related to LGBTQ issues or learning about race and racism.

Political divisiveness impacting students’ education

“Much of the political dynamics that have been playing out in conservative grassroots activism is also occurring in many California communities, with serious consequences for education,” Rogers said.

At least one California principal has told his teachers to avoid talking about politics, elections and current events.

Students must understand the history of various groups to have a respectful, evidence-based dialogue to help build a diverse democracy, according to the report.

In California, unlike the rest of the country, educators in purple and blue communities were equally likely to support LGBTQ student rights. Principals in purple communities were 5% more likely than those in blue communities to offer training to teachers and staff to support learning about the literature and history of people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

“It’s refreshing to hear that while California is seeing these problems, many educators and school staff aren’t backing down when it comes to racial and gender equity,” Rogers said. “Unfortunately, certain people who represent particular segments of the Republican Party believe that highlighting culturally divisive issues and attacking schools for teaching the full history of American society and protecting LGBTQ rights is in their partisan interest.”

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