The 'Parental Rights' Movement Has Its Sights On This OC School Board
In the wake of pandemic-related school shutdowns and mask requirements — and the resurgence of calls for racial justice — some school board races across the country are getting tense.
In the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District in north Orange County, two of the school board’s seats are up for grabs. The races pit long-time, moderate incumbents against conservative, political newbies who are promising to keep issues concerning race and gender identity out of classrooms, and fight for what they call parental rights.
"The education system is trying to put a divide between parents and their children in a way that the system gets to raise them rather than the parents," said candidate Todd Frazier, whose campaign motto is "Faith, Family, Freedom."
The district is racially and politically diverse: fewer than one-third of the 24,000 students who attend public school there identify as white. Just over 40% of voters in the district are Republican, 32% are Democrats and 22% are registered as No Party Preference.
Frazier thinks parents should have a greater say in what does and doesn't get taught in classrooms. And he thinks racial theories and gender ideologies have no place in public school.
"The classroom is not a place for social justice, it's not a place for ideology, it's not a place for anything other than academics and learning to respect authority for students," he said.
Frazier also said he didn't think there was a place on campus for something like an LGBTQ club because it's based on sexual identity. "Society has pushed [that] gender identity is the most important thing, sexual identity is the most important thing. There are so many other things that we have in common," he said.
'Parental Rights' Movement Spreads, Evolves
Parents like Frazier have found inspiration and support from the state Republican Party, especially through its "Parent Revolt" program, and from national conservative groups like Turning Point USA. The group sponsors a "School Board Watchlist" which, according to its website, "finds and exposes school board leadership that supports anti-American, radical, hateful, immoral, and racist teachings in their districts, such as Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, sexual/gender ideology, and more."
In September, the Yorba Linda High School student chapter of Turning Point USA hosted a stop on the group's "Made in America" tour. The evening event held in the school's auditorium featured political commentator Drew Hernandez (former Buzzfeed journalist Benny Johnson was supposed to headline but got held up by Hurricane Ian).
At the entrance gate to the spacious campus, a teenager holding a sign that read "Big Gov Sucks" directed people toward the auditorium.
After an introduction that featured a video message from Johnson running through hurricane winds outside his home in Florida while holding an American flag, Hernandez was up.
He gave a fiery speech focused heavily on his Christian faith and peppered with talking points common among far-right extremists, including teachers trying to "groom" children and communists out to destroy the nuclear family.
After the event, a parent in the district named Chris said he got involved with local school board politics to protest pandemic-related school closures, and mask and vaccine mandates. Chris wouldn't give his full name because he's a public employee. He said he hasn't been able to work since he's not vaccinated for COVID-19.
Chris has been volunteering full-time for the campaigns of Frazier and another friend and conservative school board challenger Richard Ingle. Chris said he's concerned about gender policies in schools.
"In our district they allow boys into girls' locker rooms. As far as I know, they're not allowing them to compete in their sports, yet. That's super extreme, for me. I have a daughter and a son. And I don't want my son exposed to a girl in his locker room and I definitely don't want my daughter exposed," he said.
Mandates Fueled Grievances
State law requires schools to let students use facilities and join teams consistent with their gender identity. In fact, many of the issues that are core to the self-styled parental rights movement can be traced back to state and federal mandates, starting with COVID-19 protocols, said Greg Franklin, a University of Southern California professor and former superintendent of Tustin Unified School District.
"Public schools were required to follow the state and county health officials' guidelines," Franklin said. "And so it sort of set up a tension between some of the anti-mask parents and the public school administrators."
When working for Tustin Unified, Franklin saw the evolution of concerns among a group of parents who initially opposed mask mandates and lately have targeted critical race theory, a nationwide rallying point for conservative activists. But he questioned the movement's self-styled "parental rights" label.
"I think most educators are all for parental rights. And we have long established practices of allowing parents to request alternative assignments if something is bothersome to them or requesting an alternative reading novel if they don't approve of the book for their student to read,” he said. "So those kinds of things have been in place without much controversy for a really long time."
I think most educators are all for parental rights. And we have long established practices of allowing parents to request alternative assignments if something is bothersome to them or requesting an alternative reading novel if they don't approve of the book for their student to read.
Ando Muneno, whose 6-year-old son attends a Placentia-Yorba Linda school, said he's supporting the incumbents, Carrie Buck and Karin Freeman, primarily because they have extensive experience running the district. And, he thinks, running it in an apolitical way.
"We moved here because the school district is good," Muneno said. "I don't think that's because of the people who are trying to unseat [the incumbents]."
Muneno, who works in mental health, said the things that seem to really upset parents like Chris and Frazier, the school board candidate, aren't major issues for him.
"Like I don't care if a kid uses different pronouns. Or I mean, I do care, I want them to be, you know, affirmed for who they are. But also it's not that big of a deal for me. I do this every day as part of my job, I ask people their pronouns, it's not the end of the world. …There's all this ridiculous stuff out there about, 'oh, well, they're gonna identify as cats and want kitty litter.'"
For Teachers, A 'Chilling Effect’
Historically, in Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified, endorsement from the local teachers union signaled a likely win in school board elections. In 2018, elections for the district were canceled because no one stepped up to oppose union-endorsed incumbents Buck and Freeman.
That changed in 2020, when three conservative newcomers won seats, Marilyn Anderson, Shawn Youngblood and Leandra Blades. The three were responsible for the district's resolution against teaching critical race theory (CRT), which passed on a 3-2 vote in April. Buck and Freeman voted no.
Blades told LAist that even though critical race theory wasn't being taught in the district, it was present in supplemental curriculum used by teachers. "So now the supplemental curriculum that comes in has to align with district standards for curriculum," she said.
Youngblood and Blades also initially voted against creating an ethnic studies high school elective. They eventually supported the class after extensive curriculum vetting and a name change to "multicultural studies."
Under the current conservative school board majority, some district educators say they feel like they're under constant scrutiny.
Deborah Wilson-Ozima said a parent complained to the principal at the school where she was substitute teaching in November 2020 after overhearing Wilson-Ozima read from a Scholastic News article about President Biden's election victory that year. Wilson-Ozima, who had been teaching the class remotely at the time, said the incident opened her eyes to the ideological tension in the district. "That's when I really was made aware," she said.
Librarians Worry, Too
Sarah Phillips, who's been the librarian at Yorba Linda High School since 2014, said the CRT ban has had a "chilling effect" on educators.
"It opened it up that if anybody thinks that a teacher is quote unquote teaching CRT they're going to get turned in and there's going to be some kind of repercussions for doing that," Phillips said.
Phillips worries that the district's school libraries could become a target, as they have in other parts of the country. "I feel like I have butterflies in my stomach all the time," she said. The literature organization PEN America has counted more than 2,500 instances of books being banned in U.S. schools since July 2021, many of them with LGBTQ themes or protagonists, and prominent characters of color.
"We're just waiting for it in Orange County to happen. And I honestly don't know if it's going to happen or if I'm just being paranoid [but] I feel like it's going to because of certain parents that seem to have a real agenda to, this year, quelch LGBTQ voices, and the year before, to quelch any kind of Black, any kind of BIPOC voices," Phillips said.
Jennie Bremer, who teaches history and the new multicultural studies class at El Dorado High School, said a lot of what some outspoken parents think is happening in classrooms, like indoctrinating kids with a certain political ideology, just isn't happening.
"I understand that it is my job to teach kids how to think critically, not what to think. And I've always taken that extremely seriously," she said.
Bremer said she tries to block out the dissonance at the school board level and focus on her job. "When I'm at school, and I'm in the classroom, it is about the students, 100% about the students. And the rest of the nonsense is nonsense."