Santa Barbara Unified School District board of trustees.
The Santa Barbara Unified School District is at the center of brewing controversy over a curriculum that purports to train people about “implicit bias.” The district’s board of trustees is set to vote on a series of one-year Just Communities agreements at its Oct. 9 meeting. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara Unified School District is at the center of brewing controversy over a curriculum that purports to train people about “implicit bias.”

The district’s board of trustees is set to vote on a series of one-year Just Communities memorandums of understanding at its Oct. 9 meeting.

A group of anonymous parents, through attorney Erik Early, have threatened a lawsuit if the board approves the Just Communities contract, which Early says is racist.

“The group I represent has heard from teachers, parents and community members of this district, all of whom are very concerned about their ability to speak out against the JCC for fear of being silenced and labeled as something they are not,” Early told the school board at the Sept. 11 meeting. “Approval by the board of the MOUs will lead the board and the district to likely be sued by this group of parents and citizens.

“I am here to tell you that the board should consider long and hard and very carefully the legal exposure it will face if it enters these MOUs.”

Early, who ran unsuccessfully for California Attorney General in 2018, is a managing partner with the Los Angeles-based law firm Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae.

“The program is a radical, discriminatory and illegal curriculum that violates various anti-discrimination laws and this district’s own regulations,” Early said.

Just Communities Central Coast is a nonprofit organization that has partnered with the school district for several years to provide customized training, professional development and facilitation around issues of diversity, inclusion and equity.

The district has proposed three MOUs that would include training in the following areas: equity and cultural proficiency; implicit bias training series and English learner and parent engagement.

Crowd of people at meeting of Santa Barbara Unified School District board of trustees.

The Santa Barbara Unified School District is at the center of brewing controversy over a curriculum that purports to train people about “implicit bias.” The district’s board of trustees is set to vote on a series of one-year Just Communities agreements at its Oct. 9 meeting. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The cost of the combined contracts is $301,605.

Since 2013, the district has paid Just Communities more than $1 million to provide various trainings. 

The group’s Institute for Equity in Education program is a four-and-a-half-day residential workshop for educators. The training is designed to helps teachers, counselors, administrators, parents, and other school and district staff increase their understanding of how race, socio-economic class, and individual and system-wide bias affect the learning environment.

The training aims to provide educators with skills, tools, and resources to teach students from all backgrounds.

The program focuses on four Rs: relationships, relevance, rigor and racial and economic injustice. 

With racial and economic justice, the curriculum “helps educators explore the history and legacy of racism in the U.S. education system and its impact on teaching an learning.

“It helps educators understand issues such as white privilege and internalized racism. IEE provides educators with the knowledge and concrete tools necessary to counter the impacts of racism on student engagement and achievement.”

Jarrod Schwartz, the executive director of Just Communities, said that the organization “is and always has been a collection of people from all walks of life, all racial and ethnic backgrounds, all socio-economic statuses, gender identities, sexes, sexual orientations, faith backgrounds, abilities, immigration statuses, and more.

“We are an organization that serves all members of our Central Coast communities with people of diverse backgrounds serving on our staff, our board of directors, as volunteers, as donors, and as contributors to our work and vision,” Schwartz said. 

Schwartz said that Just Communities first partnered with the school district to help close the Achievement Gap between white and minority students. 

With the district, the organization set out to close the achievement gap by focusing on instruction, curriculum, school climate and culture, and on “institutional racism” as one of the many causes of these gaps, Schwartz said. 

Schwartz said that since the partnership with the district began, there’s been a 43-percent increase​ in English Language Arts proficiency at the elementary level; a 27-percent increase ​in elementary math proficiency; and a 70-point increase​ in elementary Academic Performance Index (API) scores, along with several other academic improvements. 

“These gains happened at a time when the national averages for Latinx students remained stagnant, and at a time when achievement for white students in Santa Barbara Unified stayed the same in some areas and improved in other areas​,” Schwartz said. 

Schwartz and others are also upset that someone added the phrase “white people” in parentheticals, to Just Communities’ original documents. 

For example, in Just Communities materials, it states: “Developing a Common Language around the Dynamics of Oppression.”

In materials that have been distributed by the curriculum’s opponents, the document states “Developing a Common Language around the Dynamics of (White People) Oppression.

“At best, our work is being misrepresented; at worst, it is being distorted and doctored to support the claim that we are somehow anti-white and anti-Christian,” Schwartz said. 

Schwartz said implicit bias “is a well-researched phenomenon.”

“From the time we are born, we are absorbing information and misinformation about the world around us and the people who live in that world,” Schwartz said. “Implicit bias shows that even good, well-meaning people who genuinely believe in fairness and equity and who want to do good in this world absorb stereotypes about various groups of people.

“This information resides in our brains and has the potential to impact our beliefs and behavior in ways that often contradict our values and beliefs, and which can harm those around us, even those we care about.” 

He said there is no guilt involved. 

“It’s like living near a factory that spews out pollution all day, every day,” Schwartz said. “Eventually, we breathe it in and it gets into our system. It’s not our fault that happens, but, for our long-term health, we need to do something about it.

“The same is true of implicit bias. We live in a society where we are constantly absorbing messages from the world around us, and over time, this ‘pollution’ gets into our system. It’s not our fault, but we do need to do something about it.”

Several teachers and some students spoke at the Sept. 25 meeting in support of the Just Communities curriculum. 

Cate Nelson, an English teacher at Dos Pueblos High School, said the Just Communities training “changed my view of the world and made me a better teacher. We do not begin our lives with the same advantages.”

Attorney Early, however, said the curriculum is about ideology, not education. 

“Is the content political or not? We submit that it absolutely is,” he said. “Is the program divisive? It absolutely is.” 

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com.